Tuesday, April 24, 2012

La ley del deseo [Law of Desire] Movie Review: 25 Years Ago This Month

In the 25 years since Law of Desire Almodóvar has refined his filmmaking and writing styles to the point of near perfection. Looking at this older film you almost have to ignore the occasional stilted dialogue and acting and focus instead on his themes, which were as rich and fulfilling then as they are now.

Almodóvar has always been fond of setting films with films or plays within films and Law of Desire is not different, featuring both. He’s also always pushed the boundaries of acceptability in filmmaking and here he opens with a sexually explicit scene that, it turns out, is being directed by Pablo Quintero (Eusebio Poncela) as part of a film that will make him even more of a celebrity. Pablo has a fairly strong habit of engaging in both drugs and promiscuous sex with young men he meets while out in his hometown of Madrid. His regular lover Juan goes away on an extended holiday leaving open the opportunity for Antonio (Antonio Baderas) to take his place and become jealous to the point of making some very poor decisions.

As is so often the case in his films, Almodóvar is less concerned with what happens than he is with how it happens and the people that cause it to happen. Here is a writer and director obsessed with the fluid nature of identity. He doesn’t only explore these themes within the story, but also in the casting. Almodóvar repeatedly used Banderas in his early films to play the young gay lover. Of course Banderas is heterosexual but had an early status in Spain as a gay icon. He has since become a female heartthrob. I point this out only because I think Almodóvar uses Banderas intentionally in this way to add an extra layer of confused identities. Antonio the character at first claims he doesn’t sleep with men, but then quickly jumps into bed with Pablo. Antonio doesn’t think of himself as gay. He is a lover, a sentimentalist. These are facts he must conceal from his domineering mother, who disapproves even of the possibility of his having a female lover.

Almodóvar plays with identity in other more striking ways. Pablo’s strongest confidante is his sister Tina, formerly his brother who underwent a sex change operation. She has an adopted daughter, Ada (Manuela Velasco), who receives Pablo’s adoration. To confuse things even more, Ada is the biological daughter of a woman named Ada, played by the well known transgendered actress Bibí Andersen. Make no mistake about it – Almodóvar deliberately cast a non-transgendered actress as Tina and vice versa for Ada. The suggestion, present in virtually all of his films, is that identity is fluid and not necessarily tied to our physical parts or the shell we are encased in, a hypothesis presented in an almost literal form in The Skin I Live In, his most recent film.

The colorful, red-soaked, purple prose films of Almodóvar are known for being campy and highly stylized. But here, as with some other early efforts, some scenes come across as a bit ridiculous with the occasional poor acting to match. If you look at the progression of his work over the last quarter century, you’ll probably find that as a writer Almodóvar has continually improved from straight camp to finely honed melodrama and as a director he has gone from sledgehammer symbolism to a greater ability to finesse his message. He keeps the film alive with great energy, an admirable trait he’s maintained throughout his career.

But still I like the movie for its bold expression even if I think he tries to pack too much in. In addition to the issues of identity that most of his characters have, he throws in a dig at the Catholic Church (not at all unusual for Almodóvar) and a back story involving an incestuous father-son relationship. I can forgive the obviousness of scenes like Tina soaking herself in the watery stream from a hose on a hot summer night or the soap opera level drama of Pablo losing his memory at a dramatically contrived moment in the story (and then getting it back even more conveniently) because I like where he ultimately takes the story of Antonio, the only true tragic character in the film – a young man with the emotional output of an adolescent who only wants to feel proper love. He achieves his catharsis, but at great cost. This also comes in a sequence that changes the film’s tone from melodrama to thriller, a change that, while unnecessary, keeps you aware that you are watching some staged. That has always been one of Almodóvar’s greatest strengths. 

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