Judging from the films of Pedro Almodóvar, 1980s Spain was a festering hotbed of sexual obsession, high-pitched melodrama, and Catholic guilt. But oh, is it ever stylish! This week, The Film Experience’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot series delves into two of Almodóvar’s seediest, most suspenseful thrillers, Matador and Law of Desire. Since I’ve already written about the sensual Matador vis-à-vis Duel in the Sun, I went with Law of Desire (1987), which was new to me. My oh my, did I make a good choice.
Matador’s detective Eusebio Poncela plays Pablo, a lovelorn, coke-snorting film director, while star-in-the-making Antonio Banderas plays the attractive young man who lusts after and fixates on him. Pablo tries to get Antonio off his back, but no amount of cold water can douse his pathological passions. I mean, honestly: just consider how intensely Antonio ogles him on the morning after their supposed one-night stand.
It’s so strange to think of today’s Banderas, an A-lister voicing an animated kitty, then go back and watch him playing horny psychopaths in NC-17 erotic thrillers. He’s great at it, too, mixing an innocuous “What, me crazy?” attitude with a very real capacity for evil. He’s essentially reprising Robert Walker’s role as Bruno Anthony in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train and, like Bruno, he’s sincerely starstruck. He admires Pablo, and thinks they understand each other. And he’s not going to let anything—including living boyfriends, car crashes, or the police—get in his way.
As a result of Antonio’s deluded devotion, the situation quickly gets out of hand. But it does so in the strangest, sexiest way imaginable. (This is Almodóvar, after all.) Antonio doesn’t just go from forgotten one-night stand to homicidal maniac in one step, like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. He has hints of a relationship with Pablo, exchanging some love letters and very real affection. Then, shockingly, he takes away the man Pablo loves. This leads to my favorite shot in the film, an unexpected union of clever camerawork and overwhelming emotion.
This image shows up as Pablo’s driving unthinkingly for miles and miles; he’s just received a series of life-changing revelations. Almodóvar gives us a disorienting perspective on his flight by filming his sunglasses, as they reflect his steering wheel and windshield. Once we’ve had time to adjust to this strange new POV, the camera pans down slightly and the reflection goes out of focus. Then a single tear streaks down his face. No words are necessary: just the sentimental score and Poncela’s face, in a close-up so tight it’s almost abstract. All of Pablo’s heartbreak up to this point, encapsulated in one swift motion.
I loved a lot of other shots in Law of Desire—it’s a very lush, erotic, and bizarre film. Almodóvar makes wonderful use of mirrors, staircases, dissolves, and as always, primary colors. But one element I can’t leave out is Carmen Maura, as Pablo’s trans sister Tina. She’s an unabashed diva, starring in her brother’s production of Cocteau’s La Voix Humaine and helping to raise his daughter Ada. (Fun fact: Ada is Manuela Velasco, star of the zombie movie [REC].) At one point, Tina argues with Pablo about his use of her private life in a script he’s writing.
Almodóvar knows how never to waste a shot. Each actor displays aggressive, don’t-fuck-with-me body language while framed between a red, white, and blue Pepsi sign on one side and a well-stocked bar on the other. But within this fantastically composed shot, with all its loud outfits and light sources, your eyes go straight to the dynamic, pissed-off expression on Maura’s face. It’s no surprise that she wins this round of emotional warfare.
Maura is just one explosive ingredient in Law of Desire’s cocktail of great acting, haunting visuals, and sick madness. The main thought on my mind while watching it, aside from “Ooohh!” and “Holy shit!”, was “Why don’t I watch Almodóvar movies all the time?” It’s sexy, Hitchcockian, and over-the-top, just the way I like ’em, and it ends with a bang.