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Lust, Duels, and Matadors

Pedro Almodóvar’s Matador (1986) is a film about erotic obsession. It’s about the lusts that lead men and women to fuck, and to murder. But since it’s Almodóvar, you know it’s done with a fairly light touch – a self-consciousness about just how campy and ridiculous this whole affair really is – even as he spreads on the color and sensuality like so much molasses. Matador is a well-crafted Hitchcockian thriller about Ángel, played by a young Antonio Banderas, who is neurotically consumed with mother-instilled Catholic guilt. One night, he attempts to rape his neighbor Eva, who is also the girlfriend of Diego, a retired bullfighter who’s been giving Ángel lessons.

After confessing it to the police, he also assumes the guilt for four unsolved murders – of which two were committed by Diego, and the other two by Ángel’s lawyer María. This creates a roundelay of desire and suspicion worthy of the Master of Suspense, as the two killers smell blood and draw gradually nearer to one another. And just like the finest tales in Hitchcock’s repertoire, it’s all totally preposterous – which couldn’t matter less, because this is Almodóvar, so it’s not about logic. It’s about María’s sinful allure and Diego’s unquenchable thirsts; it’s about melodrama and madness and orgasms at the brink of death.

Diego and María’s dance of death leads to a climax (pun intended) that’s about as extravagantly, disturbingly erotic as anything this side of In the Realm of the Senses (1976). The rest of the characters burst in and gaze, shocked, at the remnants of their two-person orgy. They may have died, but they get the romance and tradition of bullfighting, a pair of beautifully entangled corpses, and the satisfaction of finally fulfilling their passions. It’s excessive, it’s perverse, but that’s Almodóvar for you. His film’s endings are often hard to categorize, a mix of happy and sad, troubling and comforting. Matador follows the same enigmatic, convention-defying pattern in its own weirdly sexy way.

Hitchcock isn’t Matador‘s only inspiration. Almodóvar is a highly allusive filmmaker, and midway into Matador, María sneaks into a movie theater, with Diego in hot pursuit. The theater, naturally, is playing the steamy climax of David O. Selznick and King Vidor’s feverishly epic western Duel in the Sun (1946). Just like Matador, Duel in the Sun ends with its two obsessive, doomed lovers – Pearl (Selznick paramour Jennifer Jones) and Lewt (Gregory Peck) orgiastically destroying one another. It’s a bloody end for a saga of family, betrayal, and industrialization – but one that’s just as ridiculous as any scene in Matador, even if the film never admits it.

Duel in the Sun begins with the hanging of Pearl’s father (Herbert Marshall) for the murder of his wife and her lover. She’s sent off to live with distant relatives – the McCanles family, who live on a vast ranch called Spanish Bit. There’s the ornery, paraplegic Senator (Lionel Barrymore), his more sympathetic wife (Lillian Gish), and their two sons, the lusty Lewt and the more civilized Jesse (Joseph Cotten). As you can tell, this is a giant, expensive, all-star affair – even Walter Huston steps in for a tiny role as an itinerant, fire-and-brimstone preacher who lectures Pearl about her sinful nature: “Under that heathen blanket, there’s a full-blossomed woman built by the devil to drive men crazy!”

By men, of course, he means Lewt, who has a sinful nature of his own. This is an unusual character for Peck, who would go on to fight anti-Semitism shortly thereafter in Elia Kazan’s message movie Gentleman’s Agreement (1947); here, he’s a gun-toting rapist fixated on owning Pearl (and her sexuality) to the extent that he kills her kind-hearted fiancé in cold blood. However, the Senator’s racism makes Lewt refuse to marry her; Pearl, you see, is part-Native American. (As a result, the very white Jones’s skin is crudely slathered in brown makeup, just like Charlton Heston in Touch of Evil.) Through all of her trials, Jesse tries to help her, but he gives up once he believes that she’s actually interested in Lewt. So Pearl grows more and more attached to Lewt… and draws nearer to her own death.

This is not a racially or sexually progressive movie, at all. Its protagonist is essentially martyred from the start just because of her skin color and her mother’s affair, and she’s blamed for every bit of persecution she receives – whether by the Senator, the preacher, or the brothers she alternately loves. It’s none too surprising, either, since Duel in the Sun was basically intended as Selznick’s follow-up to his super-popular but similarly regressive magnum opus Gone with the Wind (1939). While it doesn’t match the earlier film’s romantic heights or historical scope (despite having three times as many uncredited co-directors), it still has plenty to recommend it – especially if you’re a junkie for torrid melodrama like Almodóvar clearly is.

Duel in the Sun‘s delights are more cultish and weird than its southern predecessor, especially as the film approaches its sun-burnt, homicidal finale, which borders on the surreal. The film’s oneiric qualities are aided by the dazzling Technicolor cinematography, shot by the team of Lee Garmes, Ray Rennahan, and Harold Rosson, which make the desert look distinctly unreal. Regardless of Selznick’s intentions, Duel in the Sun is definitely closer to Johnny Guitar than How the West Was Won – and it’s to the film’s credit. Jones isn’t exactly an acting dynamo, but thankfully she’s surrounded by a cast of legends, and Peck makes one hell of a sleazy, unapologetic villain.

Finally, Duel in the Sun is unabashedly erotic, as Jones’s heaving bosom is just as vital to the film’s success as any given line of dialogue. Much of the movie, especially the conflict between Jesse and the Senator, seems geared to make you think this is a movie about nationhood, the death of the west, and the taming of the land. But that’s an afterthought in relation to the film’s real and true subject matter, which is the kinky, violent, death-tinged relationship between Lewt and Pearl. As much as I wish that Jesse could’ve been the main character (ohh, Joseph Cotten…), it just wasn’t to be.

No, Duel in the Sun‘s heart belongs with Lewt, his phallic guns, and his frequent, contentious trysts with Pearl. Their behavior together makes Rhett and Scarlett look like a model of chastity – as well as a model of respectful consent and female self-determination. Gender equity and healthy sexuality are tossed out the window, and the same goes for any conception of subtlety or restraint – Selznick really wanted to paint the landscape with his character’s outsize emotions. So you can see why Pedro Almodóvar (or Martin Scorsese, for that matter) loves this movie. It’s ambitious, audacious, opulent, unhesitatingly melodramatic, and it charts the inevitable path from erotic obsession to stylized death.

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