LAW OF DESIRE (La Ley del Deseo) (Spain, 1987) *** 1/4
These days in Madrid there is something that the media call a movement, and have baptized "La Movida," a no-holds -barred flowering of swinging art and lifestyles in which filmmaker Pedro Almodovar figures with outrageous prominence.
LAW OF DESIRE is Almodovar's sixth and latest feature. His WHAT HAVE I DONE TO DESERVE THIS? which was recently shown in the US, opens in a martial arts academy with the impromptu lovemaking between a charlady and a stranger.
LAW OF DESIRE's start is an even greater provocation to the squeamish, with a prolonged autoerotic scene by a man. You may call it graphic or not-so-graphic as it does leaves enough to the imagination--it's a matter of semiological and semenological interpretation, and of cultural standards. Having, however, produced his initial shock,"enfant terrible" Almodovar seems satisfied and tones down the descriptions in the balance of the movie.
This first scene turns out to be a movie-within-a-movie, and a hit with its Movida-type public. The film's maker is Pablo Quintero, a writer-director of plays and films, and an idol of the avant-garde Madrilenos.
Pablo is a homosexual, although in his case and those of his companions there are strong hints of bisexuality too. He is promiscuous, but, as I see it, not so much in absolute terms than as a form of autoeroticism, the psychological equivalent of the opening scenes. Just as any artist--including Pablo--wants to be admired, the private/public Pablo also wants to be desired. This is a rather messy state of mind.
To complicate matters further, Pablo is also in love with young Juan who responds yet is not quite sure that it's the way to go for him. To complicate the complication, Pablo has a beloved sister, Tina (Carmen Maura) who used to be his brother before he-she had a sex change. (Maura is perfect in her sexual ambiguity).
Tina has taken over the peculiar raising and education of a little girl, Ada, who, along with Tina, is prone to some delightfully kooky religious spasms.
Ada really belongs to another Ada, her mother, who used to be Tina's lover but is now searching for the perfect mate in Italy. Ada Senior is the most beautiful woman in the film. I thought for a moment that she was Ali MacGraw. Later I found out that she is Bibi Andersen, spelled almost like the name of an Ingmar Bergman star. Later yet I was told that Bibi is a famous transvestite in Madrid.
More to come. ( I'll do what I can, even though I keep laughing as I write these lines. They have to be written because, in the odd, fragmented way people and events are presented, it takes a long time for them to sink in and be sorted out.)
Pablo and another admirer, Antonio, the son of a well-to-do politician, pick each other up. Antonio has slicked down black hair, so brilliantined that it's like the surface of a 78 rpm phonograph record. (This must be an in-joke, a throwback to the looks of male Spanish stars in films of earlier days).
Antonio is--or was until now--heterosexual. Pablo initiates him in the love that dare not speak its name, but shouts it from the rooftops in this movie. For Pablo this is another exercise in conquest (he's of the race of the Conquistadores), but for Antonio it's a "coup de foudre," "l'amour fou" of the old surrealists, "el amor brujo" (love the magician).
Antonio becomes insanely jealous of Juan, finds him in the country and kills him. In the meantime, Pablo has given his sister the stage part in Cocteau's one-woman play, "The Human Voice," (which became Giancarlo Menotti's "The Telephone").
After Juan's murder the film shifts into a silly story of police detection, with black humor clues all over. (The critics have by and large decreed this second part weaker than the first, but I find it, on the contrary, a funny reinforcement to the movie's campiness). It's handled Spanishly, yet also like one of those French thrillers that imitate US thrillers. The movie advances in a series of intended howlers, getting lurider and insaner by the minute.
Antonio destroys a piece of evidence, (a garish shirt which is just like Pablo's) while finding phony alibis for his snoopy German mother. Comic inspectors suspect Pablo and search his place. The senior man finds coke. It's not enough for evidence, so he snorts it. He also has this advice for his young companion: "To be a good cop it is not enough to be unscrupulous, you got to have a sense of humor."
Pablo, disconsolate at his boyfriend's death, smashes into a tree and suffers (or does he really?) from amnesia. At the hospital, trying to bring back his memory, Tina out-lurids the lurid with the tale of her past, her love affair with their father who had Tina (Tino?) become a woman, took her to Morocco, then dropped her, leaving her with a distrust of men. Except that now she's found her ideal, who turns out to be Antonio, which leads to a superbly ridiculous, Wagnerian ending. In between we have also witnessed a bizarre interview by one of the ugliest women in Spain (or is she a man?); a queer rehearsal (or was it?) of "The Human Voice"; compromising letters by Juan signed "Laura P"; an erotic gag of Tina asking to get doused by the hose of a street-cleaner; a befuddled priest; plus many more Almodovarian grotesqueries.
Almodovar claims he's a romantic making romantic films. I won't argue the point, since he works marginally along the lines of the melodramas by Douglas Sirk in Hollywood and of R.W. Fassbinder in Germany, while at the same time mocking them as well as overheated movies by other directors. Even his titles reflect this. Naming his films LABYRINTH OF PASSION or LAW OF DESIRE is an irreverent homage to those hard-breathing flicks that were reined in by the "good taste" of older times. But in Amodovar there's little of Sirk's commercial eagerness or of Fassbinder's despair and masochism. The Spaniard is at peace with himself and contemplates a world (his own) with a tongue within a cheek that must stretch from Castille to Catalonia.
Not only does Almodovar include a film within his film, he keeps, throughout, a running commentary (sometimes too indirect to be grasped immediately) about himself and the main film he is making. Serious points are not absent, but these are somewhat obscured by Almodovar's demented inventions.
Typically, these are set in garish surroundings and shot in garish color. To what extent the architecture and interior sets of this movie are intentionally awful, I cannot tell. I am ready and eager for the next movie by Almodovar, but not for his designer to redecorate my house.