Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Pedro Almodóvar | Le ley del deseo (Law of Desire)

loving the wrong people
by Douglas Messerli

Pedro Almodóvar (writer and director) Le ley del deseo (Law of  Desire) / 1987

It some respects it's hard to say exactly what Almodóvar's 1987 film, Law of Desire is truly about. True, there is a lot of "desire" spread around the movie's few figures: handsome, middle age film director Pablo Quintero (Eusebio Poncela) clearly desires his current young "boy-toy" lover, Juan Bermúdez, and, apparently, sleeps with him on a regular basis—despite the fact that the young man is "straight." It is apparently for that reason that he sends the boy away, hoping to cure himself from his infatuation with Juan.

     Pablo's sister, Tina Quintero—a transsexual played by a woman, Carmen Mauro—desires a career on the stage and falls in love, at present, with women, living in quasi-lesbian like relationships. She also dearly loves the daughter, Ada (Manuela Velasco) of her former lover, also named Ada (performed, in a typical Almodóvar switch, by the beautiful transsexual Bibi Andersen).
Another young man, Antonio Benítez (Antonio Banderas) seeking a career in acting, almost explicably becomes obsessed with Pablo, seeking to replace Juan's role in Pablo's life. Like Juan, he too appears to be "straight," but is completely ready and willing to make love to Pablo, getting fucked for the very first time upon their second encounter. In Almodóvar's fuzzy screenplay, however, it is hard to know whether he truly sexually desires Pablo or whether he desires the career Pablo may offer a good lover. In any event, it does not pay off; Pablo's next project in a stage version of Cocteau's The Human Voice, basically a monologue for a woman; the director offers his sister the part, with the young Ada playing a delightful minor role. Pablo's script, Laura P., is never completed.

     As in nearly all of Almodóvar's often masterful films, the colors and decor are beautiful, the characters equally attractive or, as in the case of Carmen Mauro, fascinating to watch. But in Law of Desire these figures circle round each other with little apparent logic, creating sexual or psychological flashes that, at times, seem more voyeuristic in their effect that dramatically essential.

     The central dramatic thread is kept alive by the young Antonio who moves in and advances on Pablo with all the force and skill of a trained commando group taking over a terrorist compound; snooping through Pablo's correspondence, reading his scripts, overhearing conversations, and ingratiating himself with the filmmaker. Perhaps Almodóvar is telling us something about his own personal experiences. Certainly, the film seems to have no possible direction but the route it takes, creating a kind of Fatal Attraction-like subplot, where Antonio stalks Pablo's former lover Juan, first attempting to rape him or, at least, to possess him as an accessory to the director (he has also purchased an exact copy of a shirt Pablo wears), but eventually killing the young boy in the process.

      With that act, it appears, Almodóvar did not have clue where to take the plot, creating an inexplicable detour where Pablo, having determined to visit Juan, is chased by the police and, after crashing into a tree, winds up in the hospital with temporary amnesia. There has always been something soap-opera-like about Almodóvar's stories, and often that is part of their charm. But this time, the unexpected twist of the story seems to have been created only so that Tina, in an attempt to bring back Pablo's memory, reveals that she has been responsible for their parents' separation, having had a affair with their father while still a young boy, and transforming her sexuality after their parents' divorce, to go on living with him—introducing a strange Freudian wrinkle that takes incest about as far as it can go. At least we now understand why Tina has become a lesbian!
       Oh, but I forgot to mention, she now has a new boyfriend. Although Pablo regains his memory, he fails to ask the boyfriend's name until it dawns on him who Juan's murderer might be. Negotiating with the police and Pablo by holding Tina and Ada as hostages, Antonio wins an hour alone with his former lover. Another quick jump into bed closes with Antonio shooting himself, Pablo bent over the dead body with what appears to be new remorse. Had he really come to love this intruder?

     It really doesn't matter, of course, since the entire film has been little but a dance of figures all in love with the wrong people.

      Fortunately, the very next year Almodóvar swung back with a new finely tuned farce that was comically brilliant, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

Los Angeles, September 19, 2012

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