By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
Karl emerges as blank and thoughtless, a shallow, unimaginative youth who, tyrannized as he undeniably was, tries to murder a genius out of sheer peevishness. To give this psychological portrait a historical dimension, Karl is linked with the death of classicism: As Beethoven lies unconscious on a cold stone floor in an abandoned monastery, Karl stares at him unfeelingly from the midst of some time-eaten statues. Karl is the New, the callow Romantic, the 19th century’s rebel without any particular cause. The film doesn’t like him or his ignorance of what he’s trying to destroy. In this dislike, Beethoven’s Nephew seems to speak for Morrissey’s underlying conservatism: his essential belief in high art, in emotion, and in the value of experience over youthfulness.
It took Paul Morrissey 20 years to reach this point. Pedro Almodóvar has condensed a similar trajectory into a mere four films: This decade, he’s voyaged from the Dionysian Labyrinth of Passion (1982) to the Apollonian somberness of Matador, his first attempt to treat serious emotion seriously. And although Matador is a respectable effort, definitely worth seeing, it doesn’t produce the fear, trembling and sexual tension that these love-unto-death stories can produce.
Matador’s opening sequence is easily its best: Racy, blackly humorous, it shows Almodóvar when he’s really cooking. On a TV screen, women are getting hacked to bits. The camera pulls back, and we see someone watching the slasher film, whacking off. Before that really sinks in, Matador cuts to a playground where a woman in tall hair and a strange wraparound garment picks up a man. She takes him someplace, and while they have sex, she sticks a long pin into the top of his spine, killing him. The film cuts back and forth between these two scenes, finally matching the orgasms as she continues to fuck the dead man and the masturbator climaxes over the vision of mutilated women.
After this opening, you are prepared for just about anything. But Almodóvar doesn’t test you any further. The film swiftly assumes a classical cool, introducing the ex-matador, Diego (Nacho Martinez), his perhaps-gay student, Angel (Antonio Banderas), and Diego’s young model girlfriend (Eva Cobo), whom Angel tries to rape to prove his heterosexuality. Angel confesses to rape — and then four murders; but the story twists away from Angel’s legal predicament to follow the burgeoning love affair between Diego and Angel’s lawyer, Maria (Assumpta Serna).
Although its events could hardly be more demented, Matador seems designed to answer this question: Can Almodóvar make a film in which his camera barely moves? That is, the director wants to be adult, controlled, absolutely straight — none of that adolescent swooshing and rushing and lizard’s-eye-view silliness that he’s known for. Each frame is filmed like a still life hanging on a wall. The characters move in and out of that frame placidly or in a hurry, but their speed never influences the camera. The pacing ranges from effectively solemn to downright tedious, as the sequences unroll at an unvarying pace; and the art direction, except for the blood-red costuming and the overdone satin-and-rose of the climactic sequence, is relatively staid for an Almodóvar film.
The obvious purpose of this stylistic rigidity — the classic angles of the mise en scène — is to contain some violent, potentially formless emotions. It’s almost as though Almodóvar temporarily cast his lot on the side of repression, calculating that the best way to dramatize the D.H. Lawrencian proportions of Maria and Diego’s attraction was to put a tight lid on it and watch it explode. (He prefers this to the excessive, groveling-in-the-dirt emotionalism of Duel in the Sun, which appears in Matador when Maria ducks into a theater to evade Diego.) But nothing explodes; we never feel what Maria and Diego feel. Matador remains cold, reaching vainly for a classical profundity that Almodóvar either lacks the artistic maturity to convey or that simply doesn’t suit his more romantic, exuberant, messy temperament.
If Matador is Almodóvar’s most misjudged film to date, its faults stem from the filmmaker’s attempt to push his work in a new direction. Beethoven’s Nephew demonstrates how much good can come out of just such an attempt. The worst mistake a fan can make is to refuse to let her favorite directors get older.
Matador plays daily, October 6–12, at Laemmle’s Sunset 5 as part of the ongoing Viva Pedro retrospective.
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