Saturday, October 4, 2014


It’s kind of funny that I first saw James Ivory’s 1987 adaptation of E.M. Forster’s Maurice back in my college days, because rewatching the movie some 20 years later, I realize that Maurice somewhat illustrates what was my father’s worst nightmare at the time. In the early 1900s, young Maurice (James Wilby) went to Oxford where he was exposed to radical ways of thinking that made him doubt his religion while also opening up his understanding about his own sexuality, leading to clandestine dalliances with one of his school chums (Hugh Grant) and basically allowing Maurice to embrace his dormant homosexuality.

It’s like all the liberal education bogeymen that haunt conservatives have crawled out from under the dormitory beds.

Of course, to blame Oxford for transforming Maurice is to miss the truth of Forster’s story. At one point, when arguing with his mother about his changing opinions, Maurice defends himself by basically saying, “This is who I am. I am not my father, I am me. I was made this way.” Though dear ol’ mum has no idea that her child is queer, the coded language of the exchange could not be more clear, or more potent. Despite the progress made in the century since Forster published his then-controversial book (homosexual acts were illegal in England, as illustrated by the arrest of another of Maurice’s classmates), or even since Ivory’s film was released, well ahead of the indie revolution of the 1990s that helped give queer cinema a new platform, opponents of gay marriage and the regular appearance on our Facebook timelines of stories about kids coming out to intolerant parents have sadly allowed Maurice to remain contemporaneously relevant and not just a document of a certain period of history.

But then, good stories never lose their punch, and Ivory and co-writer Kit Hesketh-Harvey find the essential emotion in Forster’s tale of a naïve, upper-middle class student having his eyes and heart opened to the world. Maurice is both sensitive and insightful, finding the universality of coming-of-age coming-out stories and detailing how internal shame and external prejudice affect the individuals who suffer from them. Maurice and Clive (Grant) find friendship and then love in college, but family demands and social persecution push them apart. While Clive gives in and gets married, Maurice struggles to maintain his secret life, while also carrying the torch for his first romance. Eventually, he finds affection with one of Clive’s groundskeepers, Alec Scudder (Rupert Graves), but that also has its own complications.

One thing that is both timeless and universal in Maurice’s difficult early adulthood, and one that most adolescents can relate to be they straight or gay or whatever, is feeling like an outsider. Maurice’s most palpable and familiar trait is the air of the different. Be it religion, class, or social mores, Maurice is always on the outside. Because he doesn’t fit in what might be considered the most elemental of manly roles, he ends up finding comfort in little else. Unable to accept himself, he rejects religion, education, and the more humiliating aspects of societal expectation. Not apologizing to his headmaster for sneaking off with his lover allows Maurice a rebellion only he understands. He’d rather draw an invisible line and be tossed from school than reject what he’s found. Naturally, this position is hard to maintain, but one that Maurice must find the strength to carry on with, because the more he gives in to expectation and tries to get along, the more he struggles and the less happy he becomes. Things flip when he exploits another for his desire, indulging with the servant Scudder...though there is some question of who is exploiting whom. Forster has quite keenly observed that the oppressed can easily become the oppressor, and they can also be taken advantage of for the same.

Maurice also illustrates how certain hokum has always held sway and may never go away. Ben Kingsley shows up for a couple of scenes playing a hypnotist Maurice hires to divest him of his forbidden desires. This has about as much success as religious groups who think that homosexuality is something that can be cured through rehabilitation and prayer. Attempts to repress one’s true feelings tend to only give added strength to their triggers.

Such a delicate story requires a delicate touch, and Ivory is well suited for it. I’ve noted in the past that part of the Merchant Ivory appeal is a near absence of style, and Maurice shows the team at their most Masterpiece Theatre-like. There is little to distinguish this film from any variety of BBC literary dramas, except maybe the sexy love scenes between Grant and Wilby and Wilby and Graves. It’s certainly not the kind of thing one expects to see in a TV miniseries based on Austen or Dickens. There’s something normalizing, however, by approaching these couplings with the same even keel as Ivory and cinematographer Pierre Lhomme approach everything else. Theirs is nearly invisible cinema. There are no sweeping pans or emphatic zooms to underline emotion. Rather, Ivory allows for character and setting to maintain the spotlight. A meeting in the woods, or ducking from a rainstorm--these are tropes from romance novels, but also just the stuff of life and circumstance. When it comes to describing the films of Merchant Ivory, “plain” is not pejorative. Much in the same way an author might use clear language to make sure there is no confusion amongst his readership, Ivory leaves the flourishes to happen within the scene, even as he encourages his performers to adopt a like-minded restraint. Seeing a young Hugh Grant be dashing without mugging for the camera is a good reminder of why we all actually liked seeing him in movies once upon a time.

While this poise and reserve means James Ivory is considered by some to be the most quintessentially British of directors, the truth is that he’s an American who actually grew up and went to college in Oregon, from whence I currently hail. This connection is what prompted me to give Maurice a spin, as on Friday, October 10, Ivory will be appearing at the Hollywood Theatre in Portland to present Maurice as part of the Mid Century Oregon Genius series.

It’s a rare appearance, and to go along with this screening, Ivory has also chosen to air his rarely seen 1977 film Autobiography of a Princess, starring James Mason and available on Criterion’s OOP Heat and Dust DVD. The filmmaker selected Princess as complement to Oregon-native James Blue’s The Olive Trees of Justice showing later the same day and followed by a panel discussion focusing on Blue’s filmography.

For details on all of these showings, visit the Hollywood Theatre website.

Monday, September 22, 2014


This short review comes from my old column for, hence the link to the excellent Capote in Kansas. It was part of a larger piece that also looked at a bunch of Val Lewton-produced movies. It was posted in conjunction with Halloween 2005.

My first choice is one that should be interesting to Oni readers who tried this summer’s Capote in Kansas, because Truman Capote did some of the work on the screenplay. Released in 1961, The Innocents is Jack Clayton’s adaptation of the Henry James novel The Turn of the Screw. Keeping 19th-century England as its setting, The Innocents stars Deborah Kerr as Miss Giddens, a woman who has just started a career as a governess. Her first assignment is to take care of the orphaned siblings, Flora (Pamela Franklin) and Miles (Martin Stephens), on their uncle’s country estate. Before long, Miss Giddens realizes there is something strange about these children. They share odd secrets, enjoy a morbid sense of humor, and often wander the house unattended late at night. She also starts seeing apparitions -- the images of the groundskeeper and the preceding governess, who died as a result of an illicit tryst -- and Miss Giddens believes their malicious spirits are what have been compelling the children to act so strangely. As a result, the governess gets entangled in the age-old horror movie conundrum: is she going mad or is what she believes really happening?

The Innocents is heavy on gothic atmosphere. It uses the empty corridors and cold statues of the palatial mansion to cast a dark shadow over every event. Clayton establishes the creepiness from the first moment, with Flora singing the eerie melody that will become a motif in the film over a black screen before the 20th Century Fox logo even comes on. Everything starts in darkness. Once the logo has passed, it gives way to an amazing title sequence: Deborah Kerr’s clasped hands and her praying for the souls of the children. Kerr is wonderful throughout, playing her role with a heightened sense of dread and the anxiety of always being one step behind the action. Clayton makes the film even more tense by having everyone else in the house react to her with near indifference. They don’t disbelieve her, but they don’t actively support her, either. The audience always feels they know more than they are letting on. It all leads to a final confrontation with Miles that plays out in strange -- and dare I say, haunting -- ways. I shivered as the final title came onscreen.

Monday, September 8, 2014


Do you suppose Stanley Kubrick ever gets depressed?

As a child of the 1980s--or more accurately, an adolescent of the 1980s, which is when pop culture really opened up for me--the 1970s was always this strange brown smear lingering somewhere over my shoulder. To this day, I am not particularly drawn to most of  the music or the fashion, or even the comic books really, so if it weren't for David Bowie, punk, and the mavericks of American filmmaking, I'd pretty much skip over the decade completely.

So I am somewhat in awe of Bob Fosse's All That Jazz, released in 1979, and encompassing everything that was weird and wild about 1970s indulgence and theatricality. The elevator pitch for All That Jazz was something like The Death of Bob Fosse: The Musical, but it could just as easily have been The Death of the 1970s. This is where all the excess and the partying and the ugliness caught up with a generation.

Roy Scheider stars in All That Jazz as Joe Gideon, a stand-in for the writer/director/choreographer. Fosse has put together a thinly veiled fiction of his own life, of a period when he was burning the candle at every end he could conceive of, editing his film Lenny and preparing Chicago for the stage. The lack of sleep and the sex and the drugs eventually became too much, leading to a heart attack. All That Jazz is Bob Fosse staring down his own mortality, crafting his own memorial, and staging the damned thing as one last anything-goes hurrah.

And so it is in the film that we see Gideon's life as a frenzied parade of days, spurred on by amphetamines and cigarettes, jumping from the editing suite to the rehearsal room, balancing his ex-wife and main star, his daughter, his mistress, and whatever lady maybe struck his fancy that day. Like a dancer rehearsing, the repetition of these bad habits is basically Gideon practicing the methods of his own downfall. We watch the morning routine again and again--shower, pills, eye drops--the montage growing tighter as Gideon's body deteriorates, the eternal perfectionist honing the choreography until it’s time to do it for real.

So for its first half or so, All That Jazz is an episodic narrative of a driven man. We see Joe the Dictator, and Joe the Scourge, but also Joe the Father and Joe the Artist. Fosse's ego allows for a true warts-and-all portrayal. He is no more interested in painting himself as merely a fiery demon than he is in shying away from his own faults. Gideon can be just as genuinely sensitive as he is selfish. He’s also confused, as evinced by his ongoing internal dialogue with the heavenly Angelique (Jessica Lange), a manifestation of whatever conscience or moral compass or self-doubt he may have.

It's fairly straightforward in terms of story, though punctuated with one big song-and-dance number, a few more minor toe tappers, and regular callbacks to the faux Lenny Bruce monologue. Fosse can also be playful, unspooling a comedic montage here and there, including one in the hospital after Gideon's heart attack. It's this health scare that sets up the second-half of the movie, which essentially evolves into one massive hallucination, the drugged-up, knocked-out Joe putting on a musical that combs though his past faults and sins before taking center stage himself for a farewell rock extravaganza, complete with dancers dressed as the circulatory system, KISS-wannabes, and Ben Vereen. It's a coked-out take on the Everly Brothers, every bit as tacky as changing "Bye Bye Love" to "Bye Bye Life" sounds.

It's also pretty great. It's an audacious finish to a film that is audacious through and through. All That Jazz is a passionate, energetic, unvarnished portrayal of the creative process. It is one protracted impulse, a true cinematic bucket list by a filmmaker who had pushed his life to the edge and then dragged all of his baggage back and dumped it out for everyone to see. The other big dance number, "Airotica," is both a challenge and a statement of intent, pushing the envelope of what is allowed and then having Joe Gideon stand there and point at it and say, "See this? You can't do this!"

All That Jazz is two hours of "you can't do this." Fosse proves himself both fearless and ferocious, and he coaxes Roy Scheider into the same place. Together they pull off the high-wire act they prepare the audience for right from the movie's introduction. Together, the performers take a chance, and it pays off. Sure, some of it's corny and the art direction is dated, but as I said, All That Jazz is closing the door on a timeframe. Or more appropriately, zipping up its body bag. It's as potent a finishing statement for the decade as Robert De Niro telling Sugar Ray "You never knocked me down" in Raging Bull [review]. There was no going back from this, not with Star Wars and the newly invented blockbuster breathing down everyone's necks, but what Fosse achieved and proved was that the true dreamers didn't have to go into orbit to create their own kind of outer space.

Sunday, September 7, 2014


Love is a stream. It’s continuous. It does not stop.”

And sometimes it bears human wreckage on its currents.

In 1984’s Love Streams, his final film as writer and director, John Cassavates stars as Robert, a novelist of some fame. An aging party boy, Robert keeps many women around at one time. As the drunken lout explains to his estranged pre-teen son on a disastrous overnight trip, a man has trouble sleeping alone. These are liaisons without connection, however, because Robert isn’t very good at reaching out. At the times he does during the movie, he tends to bungle it or stop short. If his stream isn’t dammed up, then it just flows according to his own selfish purpose.

Elsewhere, Sarah is in the middle of a divorce and about to lose custody of her child. Sarah is played by Cassavetes’ real-life wife, Gena Rowlands, a regular in his films, the director’s go-to for the kind of fractured, unstable women that populate most of his screenplays. Sarah has had mental health problems, though one may surmise her biggest problem is maybe she feels too much. She has a habit of dragging her daughter (Diahnne Abbott) around to see sick people because she believes their cheery nature lifts the spirits of the ailing. The girl has had enough and wants to go live with her father (Seymour Cassel). This switcheroo casts Sarah adrift. A bit of a boozer herself, she takes some terrible advice to go to Europe and in search of sex. It’s when she comes back that she will seek out Robert and their true association will be revealed.

Up until this point, Love Streams is effectively operating as two movies. There is Robert and his girls and his domestic travails, and there is Sarah and her court battles and her wanderings. Amazingly, when they finally do come together, they basically cross and split. Sarah lands at Robert’s house, Robert takes his son to Vegas. Even then, Robert plays their relationship closer to the vest, to the point that current culture would likely label it a spoiler. There’s no real ta-dah moment, however, the magician does not lift the sheet and show us his lovely assistant; rather, the information just kind of trickles out when Love Streams finally settles down.

Robert and Sarah are brother and sister, the product of whatever warped environment would produce two such opposite beings. The man who can’t love and the woman who loves too much. Alone in the world, the two settle down in Robert’s house and try to re-connect. He attempts to be a rock for her, she strives to bring affection into his life. Her solution is to fill his house with animals, making Robert into a emotionally bereft Noah. The film’s final scenes see him running around in a ludicrous hat bringing the goat and miniature horse and fowl in out of the rain.

I would argue that this back portion of Love Steams is really its most substantial. It’s when the two characters are forced to grapple with their problems. Robert in particular embraces responsibility and tries to give his sister some stability. She is more resistant than he is. I’m not sure what to make of the fact that she spends the film’s last half hour sleeping it off while Cassavetes indulges in two ill-advised dream sequences/hallucinations. For a filmmaker revered for his realism to resort to working out these issues through fantasy seems like a cop-out. How is a musical number more effective than a tête-à-tête between his two main characters? I get that Cassavetes is revealing an irony, that Sarah is beyond reason and, despite being the one who loves, beyond repair, but this struck me as too disconnected itself.

Such is Cassavetes’ jagged storytelling style, however. His films are often hard to fathom and even hard to take, as those who have struggled with the differing versions of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie or even Opening Night can attest. His narratives are rarely clean, and his expression as ragged as the fashions he outfits his actors in. Hence the choppy nature of Love Streams’ opening scenes, or the disconcerting shifts over time and even reality. In the filmmaker’s defense, he is striving to craft a cinematic voice that relies more on real life than it does motion picture history; I’d just argue he tries a little too hard here. There is almost a feeling of desperation to how it all comes together. Perhaps it’s because Cassavetes had been told he had less than a year to live just before starting it, maybe he needed a little more time to cook but feared he didn’t have it.

Love Streams is based on a play written by Ted Allan that Cassavetes had performed in several years prior. Here the two collaborators apparently attempted to bust the play apart and root around in its inner workings. This could account for some of the jumble. They are sifting through the parts rather than putting them back together. Love Streams works more as a performance piece than it does a story.

And what performances they are. The aging Cassavetes is a growling, wounded predator here, his weathered, leonine face at times contorting into a maniacal grimace, even as his sad, soulful eyes reveal a deep hurt. He doesn’t so much interact with his fellow cast as he does move around them, the creator and his creation melding, both orchestrating their own private world. It makes sense, then, that the bits that Robert can’t control are the most interesting. The material with his son (Jakob Shaw) has a palpable rawness that should chafe against old scars of viewers who are also children of divorce. And, of course, there are also the scenes with Robert and Sarah. One can sense the very real love between them, right from their first scene together, when Robert literally leaps into the taxicab to hug his sister. It’s the husband overjoyed to be working with his wife.

The pair draw much out of each other when they are interacting one on one. Their conversations feel unrehearsed, something beyond improvised, mimicking actual speech, delivered in the moment. Rowlands’ real bravura scenes, however, are when Sarah is on her own, manipulating the world to her needs, be it bullying train station attendants into helping her or seducing the man working at the bowling alley. That’s actually the best sequence in Love Streams, the time when the audience is compelled to react as part of the production. When the man behind the counter asks Sarah how she is doing, and she starts to unload, don’t be surprised if you find yourself thinking, “Oh, god, now you’ve done she goes...”

It’s the unvarnished power of moments like that one that makes Love Streams so fascinating, even if it’s ultimately unsatisfying. I felt challenged throughout the movie. Not just in that I was trying to figure it all out, but in that I was trying to stay with it, not to jettison from the experience, not to give up on these people who are alone and floundering. I suppose that is John Cassavetes’ greatest gift, the way he shows us that even if love and, by extension, life is constantly flowing, the true triumph is to not just let it carry us where it may, but in pushing against the current, to strive to be active in it and not passively drift. That was how he built his career, after all. He lived and died celebrating the different.

Monday, September 1, 2014


They’ll hang you for sure.”

It wasn’t that long ago that I first watched and reviewed Vengeance is Mine, so I’ll direct you back to the original piece for a more in-depth look at the film, which has just been re-released on Blu-ray.

I don’t have any new great insights to add to my original thoughts. Funny enough, I kind of watched Shohei Imamura’s 1979 true-crime movie this time around as a more straightforward piece than I had back in 2013. It struck me as less of a puzzler and more of a blueprint for other epic-length bad-guy-on-the-run biopics like the two-part Mesrine movie [review 1, review 2]. Even down to how the narrative sort of drags the longer we spend with the fugitive in exile.

My main attention was drawn to Ken Ogata, and the evolution of his sociopathic murderer, Iwao Enokizu. His portrayal of Enokizu before his first killing strikes me as comparable to Robert De Niro’s work for Martin Scorsese. Post-War Iwao is impetuous and forceful, like De Niro in Mean Streets but with a real mean streak himself. After his first stint in prison, he is more like Max Cady in Cape Fear, [review] precise in his anger, and toying with the people around him. His New York Yankees cap and dark Hawaiian-style shirt even have a Scorsese flavor. His posture is slack, his limbs loose, his tone of voice hides a carefree laugh under his threats--this is a guy who believes people should just fall in line to whatever whim strikes him.

Such braggadocio disappears once Enokizu has gone on the lam, however, he becomes a more focused and deadly presence, tightening up in both word and presentation (clenched shoulders, suit and tie). There are still shades of American gangsters in his character--one can’t help but think of Dillinger when Enokizu sees himself in a movie theater newsreel; you almost expect him to get pinched with his gal (Mayumi Ogawa) when they exit--but watching the performance over the near two-and-a-half-hour running time is basically watching a bad dude calcify in his evilness. Enokizu is hardening. He may pick up lovers and even stage robberies, but he’s never having fun. This man is no Clyde Barrow, he’s too uptight. Enokizu is closer to Ted Bundy. Handsome and charismatic, but also calculated and cold, he seethes with a sense of entitlement. His biggest problem seems to be that he deserves something but not being sure what it is.

It’s a remarkable performance from Ogata, assured in its subtleties, and complete from start to vision.

Outside of the surreal final scene, Vengeance is Mine can be viewed as a rather straightforward criminal procedural, with a bravura sense of self not dissimilar to the best of American cinema in the 1970s. It’s the coda and some of the sidebar interpersonal material, particularly the relationship of the killer’s father and wife (Rentaro Mikuni and Mitsuko Baisho), that adds a slightly different flavor. But then, dear ol’ dad is a Catholic and expects divine retribution, so we’re not even too far from Scorsese there, are we?

In terms of the new release, the Blu-ray of Vengeance is Mine is certainly an upgrade, updating the previous transfer for current technology (1080p, MPEG-4 AVC encoded, lossless mono soundtrack). Colors are vibrant and detail is fantastic, allowing the viewer to study all corners of the frame. The production team also allows for a subtle grain that re-creates the authentic look of 1970s film stock.

For the audio commentary fans out, Criterion has also added a commentary track by critic Tony Rayns that was not included on the 2007 DVD edition. The other extras, including the booklet with an extensive chat with Imamura, remain, as well.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review. The stills shown are taken from the standard-definition DVD release and not the Blu-ray under discussion.

Sunday, August 31, 2014


For the final selection in The Essential Jacques Demy, we don’t exactly go back to the start, but at least back to the high point of the director’s career.

1982’s Une chambre en ville is a distant cousin of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg [review], taking that film’s musical stylings and applying them to a more realistic aesthetic, complete with political underpinnings. Set in 1955, this operatic motion picture stars Richard Berry as Francois, a metalworker on strike with his union brothers. Une chambre en ville opens with a clash between the workers and the police, switching from a black-and-white newsreel style to color as the first blows are thrown. Francois escapes unharmed, but his life is put in jeopardy regardless. With no money to pay the rent, he risks eviction from “the baroness,” Margot (Danielle Darrieux), who lets him a room in her apartment.

Margot doesn’t care for politics, she has problems of her own. Her daughter Edith (Dominique Sanda, The Conformist) is in a loveless marriage to an impotent man (Michel Piccoli) whom we will also find out has a violent temper. Granted, Edith taunts him, leaving the house wearing a fur coat and nothing else and selling herself on the streets. Edith is stubborn and flighty. She consults a fortune teller before making any decisions, and it’s through the tarot that Edith is informed that she’s destined to fall in love with a metalworker.

Unsurprisingly, this puts her on a collision course with Francois, who falls for her completely. It’s an added complication he doesn’t need. He is already in a relationship with sweet Violette (Fabienne Guyon, Life is a Bed of Roses [review]), who is trying to find the right time to tell him she’s pregnant.

Une chambre en ville takes place over the course of two days, though two days intensely lived. Love is lost and gained, as are jobs. And lives. Demy’s scenario has the same exaggerated romanticism as his more famous breakthrough, but he has traded Cherbourg’s candy-colored set decoration for the drabness of real life. Margot’s apartment may be dressed in red, and Violette’s frock may also be a lovely pink, but the dominant color here is the brown of Edith’s hair and her fur coat. The streets where Francois and his comrades fight and bleed are grimy and dark. Une chambre en ville combines cinematic conceits with more down-to-earth concerns.

It works fairly well, even if it’s not as invigorating or swoon-worthy as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Une chambre en ville lacks much of what made that movie remarkable. Dominique Sanda is fine, but she’s no Catherine Deneuve. Likewise, composer Michel Colombier (The Model Couple [review]) is no Michel Legrand.  The music in Une chambre en ville is absent of the sweeping melodies of Legrand’s score, and it’s also missing a memorable theme. I’m not too sure how I feel about more modern electric instruments creeping in, either.

Even so, there is a vibrancy to Une chambre en ville that is still quite impressive, despite it being a later period effort from the filmmaker. For those wondering why the boxed set skips more than 10 years between movies, the documentary accompanying this disc sheds some light on the topic. Released in 1995, five years after Demy’s death, The World of Jacques Demy is a loving tribute put together by his wife, Agnes Varda (who, of course, is an accomplished filmmaker in her own right). A loose biographical portrait cobbled together with film clips, archival interviews, and new conversations with friends and admirers, The World of Jacques Demy offers insight into the man’s unique passions, revealing his origins as a child of war and an early film buff. Varda covers all the hits, but also a few of the misses. There are some intriguing glimpses of lesser-known Demy movies, including his mid-60s American picture, Model Shop, a sequel to Lola [review] and originally intended as Harrison Ford’s film debut. (Varda includes his screen tests, as well as tracking the actor down to talk about what almost was.) There is also a manga adaptation called Lady Oscar and a rock ’n’ roll musical that earned Demy little traction between Donkey Skin [review] and Une chambre en ville. The only notable release I had heard of from his latter period was the Marcello Mastroianni and Catherine Deneuve comedy A Slightly Pregnant Man. Perhaps we could get an Eclipse boxed set of the lesser Jacques Demy? Because, honestly, I’m intrigued enough to track some of these down.

The World of Jacques Demy actually makes for a nice capper to The Essential Jacques Demy. Though Varda promises a discreet glimpse at her lover, the affection is evident. She views her husband with the same romantic sparkle that made all the movies here so vital. He was a man who lived his fantasy, and then did his best to share it with us.

Jacques Demy, 1931-1990

This disc was provided by Criterion for purpose of review.

Thursday, August 28, 2014


Yet another film in the long list of titles I learned about through Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert on “At the Movies,” though one I had not seen up until now. I would have been a senior in high school or a freshman in college when Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! would have been released, and it would have likely been a little too perverse for me, farther off the beaten track than I was ready to go. I was still only dabbling in foreign films, had not seen a Pedro Almodovar picture, and was a bit skeeved out by the clip they showed of the toy scuba diver swimming between a woman’s legs. That’s, of course, the most infamous scene in Tie Me Up!, the one that tested the MPAA system and helped lead the way to the NC-17 classification.

Now that I’ve seen the film, that’s one of the least disturbing elements. At least in that little bit, Marina (Victoria Abril) is enjoying herself and having fun under her own volition. In fact, it’s the last moment of freedom, really, before a man of another kind will invade her life.

Marina is an actress who has just completed filming a movie. It’s a good time for her. Prior to this, she struggled with heroin addiction and starred in adult films. It’s these past issues that will give her friends and family cause to worry when she disappears, but also indicates the darker aspects of her personality. It was likely on one of her drug-fueled benders when she first met Ricki (Antonio Banderas) a year prior, himself on one of his many escapes from a mental institution. The 23-year-old is out again, but this time legally, having been cleared for regular life. His first order of business is to find Marina, follow her home, and trap her there, kidnapping her and holding her hostage long enough for her to see what kind of a guy he really is and fall in love with him.

Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is a strange movie. Its subject matter is dark and serious, but its execution is practically frivolous. I suppose the best indication of what kind of genre Almodovar is attempting is signaled by the on-set scenes for when Marina is making her own film within the film. Almodovar is having a metafictional lark here, poking fun at himself and his reputation as a director who favors women, but he’s also calling attention to the odd, uncategorizable nature of Tie Me Up!. The film Marina is starring in is “a spin-off of the horror genre,” and so it is with Tie Me Up!. It is a sexualized Misery, with maybe Ricki channeling a little bit of Humphrey Bogart from The Desperate Hours. The fact that Marina escapes her would-be lover (and also killer) in the fake film by strangling him with a phone cord is a bit of misdirection. It’s Marina who will be tied up with a cord, and eventually she won’t be looking for revenge. Ricki’s plan works. Stockholm syndrome sets in, and Marina ends up loving her captor.

It’s hard to imagine Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! being made today. Or at least being released via any mainstream channels. There’s plenty of gross stuff ending up going straight to disc, but most studios would balk at a film that opens with its hero being released from a mental hospital, stalking a woman, and then becoming her lover with no consequence. Almodovar approaches the scenario with a macabre glee, teasing us with the trappings of a Hitchcockian psychological thriller but then going deep to really get down into the muck of it all. His trademark Technicolor fetish lends Tie Me Up! a bizarre surreality, almost as if Marina and Ricki are in an otherworldly wonderland where his sick fantasies lose their dangerous edge. In a similar fashion, the music by Ennio Morricone toggles between sinister Bernard Hermann-esque themes and more grandiose Hollywood swells. Are we watching a beautiful romance or Norman Bates being let lose to pursue his vision of Madeleine Elster?

The young Banderas is pretty incredible here, cat-like in his predatory movements, but then strangely sweet. He hints at the broken little boy that still lurks somewhere underneath all this grown-up desire. He also has a smoldering sexuality, the quality that had Madonna chasing after him in Truth Or Dare, which would have been shot around the same time. He’s handsome and charming but also just downright weird. In a way, his brokenness fills in the fissures of Marina’s own fractured personality. She exudes sexuality right from her first scene, when she decides to forgo wearing underwear because the lines will show; as a performer, Abril is absolutely comfortable in her own skin, and so she manages to show Marina as someone completely attuned to her own pleasure. As her anger dissipates--aided a little by her lapse back into drugs, it should probably be noted--we can see how she would come to crave the intensity of Ricki’s affection. Almodovar keeps her wrestling with her feelings right up until the end. She can’t make up her mind whether to go along with Ricki or to break out.

And as a viewer, you won’t always be clear on her intentions, either. Even up to the last shot, where for a second it appears Almodovar might borrow from The Graduate [review] and end on an ambiguous expression, I was ready to believe she had realized she had made the wrong decision. The momentary jitters help salvage a final sequence that is maybe a little convenient a turn of events, the director unable to resist giving in to his more melodramatic urges and tacking on a quick resolution.

Yet, it may also just be the act of a prankster. There are a lot of playful gags littered throughout the movie. Banderas outside the sweet shop window with the “O” in the sign over his face and looking like a diver’s mask, the S&M-like garb of the villain in the horror movie, Marina captured between Ricki’s spread legs when he’s standing on his head just before he turns her whole existence upside down--Almodovar’s subversion of conventional sexual imagery is key to subverting our own expectations of what makes a healthy relationship. Holding hands is replaced by handcuffed wrists, and a kidnapper might fix your plumbing (and not just metaphorically). If we were entirely comfortable with it, the trickster would be deprived of his fun. It suggests Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! maybe owes as much to John Waters as to Alfred Hitchcock. We should never stop laughing any more than we should stop guessing.

This is Criterion's first foray into Almodovar's filmography, and hopefully it won't be the last. With a crisp, colorful high-definition transfer and a well chosen selection of extras, including new interviews with the cast and crew, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is an excellent presentation, bringing the singular Spanish director into the fold of a singular company.

This disc was provided by Criterion for purpose of review.