STARRING: Antonio Banderas, Victoria Abril, Loles León, Julieta Serrano
The first film from Almodóvar I’ve come across that is straight up comedy – at least the first one I remember laughing out loud with so often. As I continue through this leisurely marathon, I expect that I’ll find another comedy somewhere within his filmography, but I’m skeptical that I’ll find one with such darkness, bizzarity or brazenness in its contempt for its characters and almost subversive pondering of male/female sexual politics.
A simpler and easier to follow story from the collected works of Mr. Almodóvar I’ve not seen (yet). It follows the struggle and ordeal of really only two characters and sticks with them (and nearly only them) as their situation complicates and unfolds. A beautiful, young porno star named Maria is attempting to make her way into mainstream film making. Hampering her endeavors is an addiction to drugs and a “holier than thou” attitude. The film within the film, “Midnight Phantom”, is put on indefinite hold when Marina disappears for days on end during production. She has been taken hostage in her own home by an escaped mental patient (Banderas) who has developed an unhealthy obsession with Marina. He busts into her apartment, forcibly and violently restraining her and keeping her tied to a bed and gagged; explaining to her that once she gets to know him, he will be a good husband to her and a wonderful father to their children. As the drama unfolds, the balance of power between the two teeters back and forth before slowly shifting to her side and eventually the entire dynamic of their “relationship” is altered in a way that must be seen to be believed.
While the plot synopsis seems brutal and disturbing when laid out in such straight forward and blunt terms, Almodóvar somehow manages to make this coupling rather enjoyable, entertaining and even laugh-out-loud funny when put on display in the way that only he knows how. I can imagine that in 1990 Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down would’ve probably been quite high on the year’s list of most controversial films (particularly knowing the outcome/ending of the scenario). After all, physically and verbally assaulting a woman for days on end while threatening severe physical harm to her and her family hardly seems like an experience for the whole family; and putting those ideals on display within a positive context would understandably get a few people hot under the collar. But year’s later Ted Demme’s Christmas treat The Ref would tackle similar issues with a similar premise and be praised for its hilarity and absurdity. While Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down is a bit more psychologically disturbing and clearly more sexually explicit than Demme’s effort, it is nonetheless just as quirky, comedic and lighthearted – arguably moreso.
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The fact that Almodóvar is able to take two characters, one a kleptomaniac mental patient with severe behavioral and social dysfunctions, another a less than intelligent, drug using, slut of a porn star and make them somewhat endearing and even relatable on some level just goes to show more of Almodóvar’s genius. As the story unfolds and the back story of our characters are revealed, they become more deserving of our sympathy and on some levels our pity. For example, Banderas’ character transforms in our minds from a likable and clever doofus to a complete nutball within a psychological prison, to slowly emerge as a character with legitimate problems that are relatable. Everyone has experienced loneliness before. Everyone understands passion, lust, greed and desires. With a sense of self-confidence and maybe even a bit of an unhealthy ego, Banderas’ character might not behave in a proper manner and clearly isn’t making decisions that most of us sane folk would condone, much less partake in, but that is why the film works so well. It takes a deranged character and gives us something believable and relatable about that character to play on our sympathies and then submerges him into situations that are unlikely in our world, but fascinating to watch play out on screen.
As always, Almodóvar’s unique aesthetic must be mentioned. In the late 80’s his unique sense of aesthetic was really beginning to take hold and by the time this film was produced, his auteur style was solidified. This is the first of his works chronologically that I find to be most recognizable as Almodóvar-like (for lack of a better term). The film is as beautiful and textured as any of his later works, but the same sense of meticulousness and preparation aren’t quite as apparent. The set design feels slightly more “messy” than his other, later works; literally. It appears that less time was taken on set to straighten up shelves or plant just the right and most appropriate set pieces as deliberately and thought provokingly as in other Almodóvar titles. Now, this could be a result of time constraints or budget as Almodóvar was not quite the phenom that he is today and likely had to adhere to some studio pressures. On the other hand, I generally give this director the benefit of the doubt and would like to think that the messiness on screen is actually quite deliberate. As the story progresses, so does the aesthetic quality in terms of “cleanliness” and pure beauty in its simplicity and color scheme. It almost appears that he chose a different stock of film for later scenes – though I imagine this is a figment of my subconscious. But I do think that this slow shift in visual tone mirrors our main characters’ mental stability and relational status quite nicely. As they become more comfortable with one another, so does the director and his film’s style and his interaction with the audience.
Though Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down doesn’t quite have the same emotional component some of his other works have, it’s nonetheless got its own set of charms and heart that is easily the most fun in terms of sheer silliness and quirk. As dark comedies go, this has got to be one of the more bizarre of the decade. While the story itself is fairly straight forward and our main characters are relatively easy to digest and become involved with, some of the looser plot threads and side characters exhibit rather odd behaviors and one could imagine that possibly David Lynch showed up on set one day to offer his creative assistance. It may be cliché these days to label certain film qualities as “Lynchian,” but certainly the comparison is valid; particularly when I don’t believe Almodóvar was straining to be Lynchian. He simply was doing his own version of odd and it came out feeling a little bit like a David Lynch production – but only in fits and starts; the bizarrity isn’t creepy, but comical. Going back further and further into Almodóvar’s filmography I’m amazed to find that while as auteur as he is, his films seem to have very different unique characteristics all their own and each one is as enjoyable as the next/last. Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down fits within this range and if I had one, would likely fit nicely within my top films of 1990 list.
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