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.

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