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Imitations of Life

The Secret of My Success

[Originally published on April 24, 1987]

Had Pedro Almodóvar shot this scene, he would have taken us into the neighbor’s apartment, where we would have heard Fox and Slater moaning, their bedpost banging against the double doors. And this wouldn’t mean they weren’t nice kids; it would mean they were having a great time — just like that other noisy couple. For it is the brilliance of Almodóvar’s comic vision to realize that, in one way or another, we are all desire’s playthings, and that this is actually pretty terrific.

Over the last three years, this 38-year-old madrileño director has made himself one of the three or four most exciting new filmmakers in Europe. Ranging from the masterful underclass comedy of What Have I Done to Deserve This? to the sexual melodrama of the forthcoming Matador, Almodóvar is that rarest of phenomena, a rigorous, artful filmmaker whose work is genuinely liked by a mass audience. The reasons are obvious. His smart, playful movies move with surrealist glee as they subvert authority and celebrate the body electric. Almodóvar’s all for pleasure — even if it kills you.

Which it does in his latest film, Law of Desire, a work that’s as fevered and irrational as The Secret of My Success is cold and calculated. Like all of Almodóvar’s movies, Law of Desire is awash with gaga plotting and sexual topsy-turvy: incest, sex changes, jerking off in churches. Mixing romance, black humor, murderous melodrama and homosexual élan — given half a chance, the guys hop out of their duds and onto bedsheets talced with cocaine — this tragicomedy centers on a love triangle among three men. Pablo (Eusebio Poncela), an Almodóvar-like director, is in love with Juan, but Juan doesn’t love him. In turn, Pablo is loved by, but doesn’t love, Antonio (Antonio Banderas), who, after a one-night stand, becomes a murderously possessive lover. As Pablo attempts to negotiate his way through this acute erotic geometry, he’s helped by his brother-turned-sister, Tina (Carmen Maura), a transsexual actress who is raising a young girl, Ada (who — no surprise — adores Pablo).

It scarcely matters that the characters are gay (Matador tells a similar story about heterosexuals), for at bottom, Law of Desire isn’t really about sex. It’s a romantic film about desire — about the force that burns in your bones and makes you seek oblivion in the very cells of some Other — man or woman, drug or art, god or death. In fact, this screw-happy film’s purest expression of desire isn’t directly sexual: Unable to stand the heat of summer one second longer, Tina cries “Spray me!” to a street cleaner, who blasts her with his big hose.

Although desire in this film leads to murder and suicide, Almodóvar is resolutely unmoralistic about it — he neither punishes his characters’ taste for drugs and promiscuity, nor does he treat them as case histories. In fact, Law of Desire disapproves of those who refuse to acknowledge their own passions and pleasures, who distort their natures through careerism or the search for respectability. Like those critics who’ve suggested that Almodóvar should talk to a psychiatrist, these victims of impacted desire want to skate on the safe surface of ordinary decency; yet it is Almodóvar’s strength to realize that madness and passion are not something buried and shrink-worthy — they are an essential part of life’s surface.

Appropriately, Law of Desire is pervaded by images of desire: video games, movies, plays, novels, scripts, songs, mirrors... a kaleidoscopic environment of desire that feeds, expresses and, maybe, twists the characters’ passions. The most brilliant of these images is a typewritten love letter from Pablo to Pablo, a letter that is read by nearly everyone in the film and means something different to each of them. At film’s end, Pablo throws his typewriter out the window, which suggests that he is opting, at least temporarily, for life itself rather than mere images.

If so, he differs from Almodóvar, who has become a genuine connoisseur of surfaces. Those who only know the funky anti-style of What Have I Done to Deserve This? will be startled by the polish of Law of Desire, by its smooth (if delirious) narrative flow, its love of primary colors, its sharp, Douglas Sirk–influenced photography, and by the flowers that bloom lushly in nearly every scene. Almodóvar loves his senses too much to deprive his films of beauty — this would be like choosing not to screw, laugh or get high.

It’s always dangerous to call any artist sane, but Pedro Almodóvar strikes me as being one of the healthiest figures in the movies today. I walked out of the theater whistling.

 


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