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Posts Tagged ‘1980s’

As I have noted in the past, one of the few reassuring universal truths is that nobody is brilliant at everything, and even those who are brilliant at something are almost never brilliant at it all the time. This surely comes as a great reassurance to those of us who are never especially brilliant at anything, at any time. It can still be a bit disconcerting, however, to come across an instance of someone who is usually reliably brilliant – this piece is not scoring highly so far for its range of vocabulary – turning in subpar work.

Still, it happens. It would almost be invidious, and certainly unacceptably negative, to give too many examples, and so I shall just move briskly on to our main topic for the day, and the source of this observation, which is Pedro Almodovar’s 1989 movie Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (title en Espanol: ¡Átame!).

Now, as regular readers will know, in the course of the last year I have gone from having only a vague awareness of Almodovar’s work to becoming a bit of an enthusiast, and I feel like I am starting to get a feeling for the kind of general trajectory of his career: a gradual increase in the sophistication and confidence throughout the 1980s films, followed by the imperial phase movies of the late 90s and early 2000s – then perhaps a little bit of a wobble, before consolidation in his current position as one of the most respected names in world cinema.

Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is a film which doesn’t really fit into this pattern, simply because it’s not very good. It did, however, lead me to contemplate what it is we mean when we talk about good and bad movies. Certainly it is a more polished and coherent movie than, say, Dark Habits, and the key roles are better acted. And yet I find it to be a poorer film. Perhaps the key difference is between weakness of conception and weakness of execution – I find the latter easier to forgive than the former.

The movie opens with a young man named Ricky (Antonio Banderas) being released from a psychiatric institution, which the director clearly finds rather distressing as she is much taken with the lad: there is a note of over-the-top campness here which suggests a much broader film than this actually turns out to be. His first act upon getting out is to find some chocolates and track down the location of a young actress named Marina (Victoria Abril), with whom he had a one-night stand some time earlier.

She is coming to the end of making a horror movie for wheelchair-bound director Max Espejo (Francisco Rabal) – there is possibly an attempt to suggest this is a Spanish take on an Argento-style giallo movie – and looking forward to a break. However, she is nevertheless pounced upon by Ricky when she returns to her apartment, tied up and informed that he will keep her like this until she does the sensible thing and falls in love with him as completely as he is devoted to her…

Looking back upon my life, I now realise that the key factor responsible for my lack of romantic success in my younger years was my ASD, but second to that was probably my deeply misguided belief that copying Roger Moore’s lady-killing moves from his James Bond films would naturally lead to similar results. I can only be grateful that things didn’t get any worse, as they might well have done if, rather than the Bond series, I had taken my cues from films like Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and other films from what I can only describe as the ‘coercive romance’ subgenre.

By this I mean movies where the male character contrives to put himself in a very controlling position with regard to the female character, but she falls in love with him anyway. Sounds pretty niche and unpleasant, right? Presumably pitched as a wish-fulfilment exercise for a certain kind of male viewer with limited social skills? Well, you might think so, but that’s a pretty good description of the premise of Passengers, which I have seen some women favourably compare to the much more conventional romance Titanic. It’s far from the only film based on the same idea: namely, that women will forgive a man anything as long as his devotion to (or, to put it another way, obsession with) her is strong enough. Is there another trope which makes it quite so clear that the film industry is still largely run by and for men?

It’s still a bit disconcerting to find Almodovar’s name on a film based around such a dubious central idea, but I can imagine how a worthwhile (if still inevitably provocative) film on the topic could be attempted – but it would have to be in part a spoof or deconstruction of the whole notion of coercive romance, perhaps demanding the kind of ironic sensibility and knowing playfulness Almodovar often employs so well. Unfortunately, this is one of his films where these qualities are much less in evidence: the central relationship is handled very ‘straight’, and the film-within-the-film is meant to be a commentary on the story, this is handled with much too light a touch (there’s a line suggesting romances and horror stories are sometimes indistinguishable).

And, crucially, it just doesn’t convince. Antonio Banderas and Victoria Abril are both very capable and charismatic performers, but the key moment of the film – when Marina submits to her growing attraction to Ricky – feels sudden and unwarranted. Normally Almodovar makes a virtue of the melodramatic nature of his stories, and the outrageous plotting, but here it doesn’t work: they don’t feel like a natural part of the film’s ethos, but something limited to just this one scene in order to make the film function as a romance.

Compounding the problem is the way that Almodovar concentrates on the central relationship quite strongly, with the result that many other potentially interesting characters and ideas are shuffled off to the fringes of the film – Rabal’s character is an interesting one, as is Marina’s sister (played by Loles Leon), but neither of them get very much to do. This feels like one of the director’s more straightforward films, in terms of its thesis – all the usual unconventionality seems to have been converted into the weirdness of the central relationship, although this is still unusually graphic for what’s theoretically a romance: a graphic sex scene, a couple of scenes with people on the toilet, and a startling moment where Marina finds a new use for a bath toy all conspired (it is suggested) to ensure Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! got an X certificate on its initial American release (something usually reserved for actual pornography).

Maybe they had a point, I don’t know. Perhaps I am letting the fact that I find the idea at the centre of this film objectionable colour my opinion of it too much. Maybe it is possible that by insanely kidnapping a woman, threatening to kill her, and keeping her tied up, you can eventually kindle the flames of love between you and her. But I still think this is a long shot, and to suggest it’s a dead cert is not just misleading, it’s arguably irresponsible, especially when the film doesn’t even suggest it has its tongue in its cheek: the happy ending feels entirely sincere. Whatever touches of quality the film has as a piece of cinema – and these are inevitably present – it’s hard to get past the problem at the heart of the story.

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For a while there I thought I wasn’t taking this Almodovarathon idea nearly seriously enough, with weeks often going by between my watching the different films in question. But that was when I rather foolishly thought the world would only be on pause for a few weeks, maybe a month or so: I’m quite glad I didn’t rush through them all, to be honest, because I would have run out a while ago.

And so I find myself watching the first Pedro Almodovar movie to acquire any sort of cultural traction in the UK (by which I mean, of course, that it warranted a mention in the cinema review section of Radio Times): Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, released in 1988. It has been pointed out that this film has not quite been optimally translated into English, certainly when it comes to the title. The Spanish title is Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios, and apparently (snappy though the extant English title is) ataque de nervios more accurately means an attack of nerves, or panic attack.

Certainly there are a lot of stressed women in this film, chief amongst them being Pepa (Carmen Maura), a reasonably successful actress (she gets recognised in the street and asked to do commercials, in both cases because she plays ‘the killer’s mother’ in a popular crime TV show). She also has a gig doing the Spanish dub of various foreign movies, and it seems that it is here she has met Ivan (Fernando Guillen), one of those charming, silver-fox kind of older dudes who ladies seem to go for. Pepa and Ivan have been an item for some time, but now it seems they have split up – Pepa, however, urgently needs to speak to him about a pressing personal matter.

Pepa’s futile search for Ivan is the core of the movie, and she grows increasingly frustrated and perhaps a bit erratic as the film goes on and he seems to be actively trying to dodge speaking with her. Other elements of her life start to pile up on her, making things even more confusing and complex: her young friend Candela (Maria Barranco) turns up at her flat, confessing that she has unwittingly become romantically involved with a group of Shi’ite Muslim terrorists; a young couple, looking to lease the flat, arrive for a viewing and – in a typically outrageous piece of Almodovar plotting – it turns out that the young man (Antonio Banderas) is actually Ivan’s son. Ivan’s mentally unstable ex-wife arrives, and so do the police, not to mention a phone repairman (Pepa has been taking her frustrations out on the handset). It seems like the only person not wanting to talk to Pepa is Ivan himself…

At one point a minor character, who’s just had the events of the movie summarised for him, looks blank and says ‘You’ve got to be pulling my leg’: this is blatantly a black, screwball farce, and the director seems to be revelling in how preposterous it all is. That said, it does take a little while to get up to speed, and the first act is something of a slow start, where it’s unclear exactly what kind of film this is supposed to be and how we are supposed to respond to it. Or perhaps this is another sign of Almodovar’s increasing confidence and deftness as a director: as we first meet and get to know Pepa, she does seem genuinely upset and the film looks like it may be dealing with relatively serious issues. But once all this is established and we’ve become invested in Pepa and her situation, the tone of the film noticeably lightens and the pace picks up. Before long there are tongue-in-cheek gags about Islamic terrorism, a running joke about a jug of gazpacho soup spiked with sleeping pills, and by the end Almodovar can cheerfully include a car chase involving a gun-toting mental patient on a motorbike and it somehow feels like much of a piece with what has gone before.

The combination of outrageous plotting, vivid characterisation, and colourful composition does seem to me to mark this as the film in which Almodovar’s classic style first comes together – needless to say, several members of his unofficial rep company also appear in the movie. Chus Lampreave gets a small part as the Jehovah’s Witness concierge of Pepa’s building, Banderas gets a nice, but relatively minor role, and the film is essentially carried by Carmen Maura, who gives another one of those strong-but-quietly-vulnerable performances which are practically another hallmark of Almodovar’s style.

As the title suggests, this is a film almost exclusively about the actions and concerns of its female characters, and it’s told from their perspective. The men are almost exclusively feckless, useless, or actually stupid, almost without exception a source of problems for the women around them. Pepa’s success at the end of the film, when it comes, is not that she finally manages to track Ivan down and have the conversation with him she’s been desperately wanting all film: it’s that she realises what a waste of space he is and decides he’s no longer worth her time, as a result becoming much less stressed and unhappy.

It’s an appropriate note for the film to close on, and entirely fitting for a film with a definite (if initially well-hidden) feminist subtext to it. The end of the film satisfies, even if, as a whole, it is not quite as masterfully assembled as some of Almodovar’s later films would be: the focus is not initially clear, and the director is not quite as slick as he would later become in selling his more outrageous turns of plotting to the audience. Nevertheless, this film is a lot of fun, once it gets going: it is still a bit rough around the edges, but in its tone, style, and outlook, it is the earliest Almodovar film that I’ve seen which genuinely feels like it anticipates the likes of All About My Mother and Talk to Her. Even if it’s not quite up to their standard, it’s still well worth watching.

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‘I have seen the future of horror, and his name is Clive Barker,’ declared Stephen King at some point in the middle of the 1980s, and there’s probably an interesting discussion to be had over just how right or wrong he proved to be: Barker remains an author with a good degree of name recognition, but – possibly because he’s not as prolific as King, nor his work as accessible – he never quite became the inescapable multimedia presence he at one point seemed likely to become. If he was the future of the genre, then it was only for a relatively brief moment.

Perhaps a sign of this is the fact that Barker is still most closely associated with a film he wrote and directed over thirty years ago: Hellraiser, from 1987. The Hellraiser series is another one of those odd cultural artefacts which proves the indestructibility of a successful genre franchise, a bit like Friday the 13th or Halloween or (outside of the horror ghetto) Highlander – people keep on making these films and they keep scraping enough of a profit for further instalments to seem like a good bet, long after they felt at all fresh or culturally significant.

The original film isn’t quite what you’d expect if you’ve only seen some of the sequels. The central figure, in many respects, is Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman), a debauched, amoral hedonist. His pursuit of new experiences leads him to purchase an odd little puzzle box which he then takes back to his house in London. Opening the box results in what I can only describe as a summoning, and after a degree of nastiness all that is left of Frank is a stain on the attic floorboards.

Eventually ownership of the house passes to Frank’s nice brother Larry (Andrew Robinson), who is in a tepid marriage to Julia (Clare Higgins) – his teenage daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) doesn’t much get on with her stepmother, either. Moving into the house evokes memories for Julia of her adulterous liaisons with Frank – a neatly directed scene intercuts Larry humping the furniture up the stairs with Julia recalling, well, a different sort of humping. Inevitably, Larry cuts his hand in the course of his furniture-moving, and his blood dribbles onto the attic floor (for some odd reason, the attic is left to stand empty, despite the fact it appears by some distance to be the most spacious room in the house). Well, something starts to happen after Julia and Larry leave, and through the wonders of gribbly 80s special effects, Frank reconstitutes himself as a grisly, homuncular revenant.

When she learns of Frank’s big comeback, Julia is not put off by the fact he now resembles a partly-dissected corpse, especially when she learns that he can further regenerate himself, given enough fresh flesh and blood to work with. So Julia starts cruising the singles bars of London during the day, luring hapless men back to the attic and braining them with a hammer so Frank can gorge himself on their remains. Problems arise when Kirsty becomes aware of the murderous lovers’ scheme and steals the puzzle box. The forces within it will not be pleased to learn of the resurrection and could be persuaded to drag the undead Frank back where he came from – if Kirsty has the nerve to strike a deal with them…

Even people who have never seen a Hellraiser may be aware of the striking image used to promote most of these movies: the chalk-faced bald guy with the nails sticking out of his head, Pinhead (a name never used, and disliked, by Barker himself). The thing is that Pinhead (played by Doug Bradley) is a relatively minor character here, appearing well down the cast list and only billed as ‘Lead Cenobite’ (the word cenobite, should you be wondering, just means a member of a monastic community). The focus of the film is really on Frank and Julia’s murderous activities for most of its duration – although the Cenobites are the most visually striking element of it, and they do pose a much greater threat at its end.

I say ‘focus’ but one of the issues I have with Hellraiser is its lack of one – or if not focus, then certainly metaphor. You could argue there’s something quintessentially 80s about a film with a strong, ruthless woman using human flesh as a resource to achieve her own ends, but is there a more specific subtext going on here? There’s clearly something horribly dysfunctional about the Cottons from the start, but the premise of the film doesn’t clarify or develop this. And the question of whom the protagonist is is a pertinent one: it initially looks like Larry (Robinson is top-billed), who then turns out to be a cipher; then Julia becomes the focus (and Higgins gives a commanding performance); finally it is Kirsty who becomes a sort of final girl figure, in true American horror movie trope style.

It seems to me there is something very calculated about Hellraiser‘s attempts to pitch for the lucrative American market. This is technically a British film, set in London, but there are a startling number of American characters amongst both the leads and the walk-ons – only Julia is unequivocally British herself. I suppose it’s financially justified, but it does result in a film which feels like an odd combination of both British and American horror traditions – the American influence, with lashings of gory special effects and a clumping lack of subtlety, eventually proving dominant.

I’m being quite hard on Hellraiser, but it does at least have some interesting ideas of its own, both visually and in terms of its narrative: the Cenobites are a curious creation (Neil Gaiman once claimed Barker was inspired to create them after meeting Gaiman and his friends, going on to suggest that Pinhead is in fact based on horror guru Kim Newman), and there is something arresting about the notion of Kirsty invoking the abstract, cosmic evil of the Cenobites to protect her from the more visceral threat presented by Frank. The only horror novel I’ve ever written which I’m remotely satisfied with was inspired by Hellraiser (although I did mix in a dollop of Lovecraft and some folk-horror, too). So I suppose I have to concede it does have something going for it, at least. Perhaps it’s best to say that this is a film filled with interesting ideas and images, much more so than most horror movies of this period – it just never develops or assembles them into a more satisfying whole. And it has to be said that most of the sequels are much, much worse, not that this reflects especially well on the original. Nevertheless, a film can be a horror classic without being especially brilliant, and this is almost certainly the case with Hellraiser.

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As is not unusual with non-Anglophone directors, the very early films of Pedro Almodovar are not widely available on DVD (at least, not in English). His first film to get any kind of wide release is 1983’s Dark Habits. You can forgive someone for not wanting the work they did while they were learning their trade to be dwelt upon in too much detail: a film like Dark Habits is certainly interesting from a historical point of view, but it hardly indicates why Almodovar has become such a major figure in world cinema. The same is probably even more true of Labyrinth of Desire and the other work that preceded it.

Dark Habits (title en Espanol: Entre tinieblas) opens in a fairly straightforward way: a nightclub singer named Yolanda (Cristina Sanchez Pascual) arrives home one night, having collected some heroin for her boyfriend. Their relationship is somewhat strained and Yolanda does not seem overly exercised when he drops dead from an overdose (very little seems to stir Yolanda’s emotions, but this may be for reasons we will discuss later on). Soon it becomes clear that she is being looked for in connection with the death – but what is she to do?

As luck would have it, she recalls a visit to her dressing room by a pair of nuns, one of whom was a big fan of hers. Yolanda decides to take up their offer of whatever help she needs and hides out in the convent. However, the place has fallen on hard times, with nary a prostitute or drug addict to be seen about the place. The sole remaining benefactor of the order is threatening to withdraw her support, which will force it to close. The spiritual wellbeing of the five remaining nuns there is hardly in a better condition. The Mother Superior (Julieta Serrano) is a big fan of humiliation as a means to spiritual growth and has given her sisters new, not especially ecclesiastical names.

So, Sister Sewer Rat (Chus Lampreave), unbeknownst to the others, moonlights as a writer of trashy bestselling novels. Sister Manure (Marisa Paredes) obsessively cleans the convent, often while enjoying the benefits of one of her frequent LSD trips. Sister Snake (Lina Canalejas) spends her time coming up with tasteful new purple lurex outfits for the devotional statues in the convent, and has a bit of a crush on their priest. Finally, Sister Damned (Carmen Maura) is devoted to the convent’s pet tiger, which roams around the grounds. Yolanda is a little surprised by some of this, and so the Mother Superior thoughtfully offers to share some of her own heroin with their visitor.

Yolanda’s arrival causes a bit of upheaval around the convent, and soon the nuns are starting to question some of their own choices and what their future holds, while the Mother Superior comes up with a plan to blackmail their benefactor into continuing her support – and if that doesn’t work, there’s always drug smuggling to keep the place going. As the Mother Superior’s birthday party approaches, things are clearly coming to a head – will the convent be able to survive?

As you can probably tell, this is not an especially subtle film, although at least the laboured pun of the title seems to have been added for the film’s English release, the direct translation being In Darkness (yes, I know, laboured puns: you’ll find nothing like that around here. Ahem). According to the director it was intended as a satire on the anachronistic nature of organised religion in Spain in the early 1980s. Obviously, the film feels blatantly provocative, and the various depictions of nuns shooting up and so on were enough to prevent it from being shown at Cannes and guarantee a polarised reaction from critics in Catholic countries. To be honest, what’s curious about the film is what a straight bat Almodovar seems to be playing with – the various scenes of the nuns misbehaving are not especially arch or played for laughs, but handled deadpan and naturalistically.

To begin with, this does make them funnier, but it soon becomes apparent that Almodovar doesn’t have much more to offer on this occasion than careful acts of provocation: the film settles down to become a steady enough depiction of how weird life is in the convent, without much in the way of new revelations or striking plot developments. The focus is very much on the nuns, with Yolanda as a relatively passive onlooker: this is an interesting device, especially as it initially looks like she is to be the focal character of the film, but apparently it was something forced upon the director: Almodovar, still an obscure young director with only a couple of minor films to his credit, was approached by a wealthy businessman who offered to fund his films as long as they prominently featured his girlfriend, Cristina Sanchez Pascual. Sanchez Pascual proved to have very limited experience as an actress and so Almodovar was obliged to restructure the film so it was less dependent upon her performance.

You don’t necessarily notice this much as it is a fairly weird film anyway, with only marginal signs of the sensibility Almodovar would bring to the great films he would make in the years and decades to come – there’s barely a male character in it, for one thing, and you do sense a deep compassion for the nuns, despite their various peculiar foibles. There’s a touch of his fondness for wildly eccentric plot devices – one element of the story is an obvious spoof of Tarzan, dropped straight-faced into an ostensibly serious emotional subplot. – but he doesn’t seem to have quite mastered persuading the audience to invest in them, yet.

Oh well. The saving grace of Dark Habits, if you’ll pardon the expression, is the ensemble performance by the actresses playing the nuns, most of whom have gone on to make frequent appearances in numerous other Almodovar movies. They are funny and engaging even when the film around them feels like it’s meandering and short on incident. This is an odd, awkward sort of film in many ways; faintly amusing, somewhat amusing, mostly just self-indulgent. It’s so self-consciously peculiar that any serious satire the director is trying to make of the Church is difficult to make out. But it’s Almodovar, so it’s still watchable – but you can tell it was made at a time when Almodovar was only just Almodovar.

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‘Life… is full of surprises,’ declaims the sideshow owner Bytes (Freddie Jones) as part of his spiel, near the beginning of David Lynch’s 1980 film The Elephant Man. It’s a darkly funny, knowing moment, very much of a piece with the strange conspiracy that the movie enters into. The whole point of the film is that the title character is a hideously deformed man, from whose presence ladies and those of a nervous disposition flee, distraught. This is what it’s about, and that’s a rather high-stakes proposition for a film to be based around.

Because, initially at least, the film is in the same position as the sideshow barker, promising to show us something truly exceptional in return for a few pennies, while we are in the same position as the people queuing up in the film, wondering if it can really be as bad as all that. Quite properly, we have to pay to get in (or we would have done, back in 1980): while the title character, John Merrick (John Hurt), does appear on the poster, he has a bag over his head that merely suggests the extremity of his condition.

I think this is essential to understanding The Elephant Man as a film. It opens with a dream sequence in which Merrick’s mother (Phoebe Nicholls or Lydia Lisle, depending on whether she’s a photo or live action) is mugged by a herd of elephants. This is about as stylish and weird as one would expect from a Lynch movie, and – along with Freddie Francis’ luminous black and white cinematography – it goes a long way to establishing the fairy tale ambience which permeates much of the movie.

Following this, we find ourselves in the company of ambitious young surgeon Dr Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins, not quite a bright young thing, but not the substantial figure he has since become, either), who is prowling the backstreets of London, seemingly in search of Bytes’ show. When the police shut Bytes down and move him on, on the grounds that the Elephant Man is an affront to public decency, Treves pays one of your actual Victorian urchins to track the show down again. Eventually he manages to arrange a private viewing for himself – but one to which the viewer is not privy, as the camera cuts away to Treves’ dumbstruck, wide-eyed face: tears run from his eyes at the mere sight of Merrick.

It’s a neat way of communicating the extent of Merrick’s condition while still preserving the mystery of what he looks like, but you do get a sense of the film milking it a bit:  Treves arranges to display Merrick to his colleagues, and we are still not allowed a good look at him; even after he is severely beaten by Bytes and is taken to Treves’ hospital for treatment, we are still waiting for the money shot. And then a young nurse (Lesley Dunlop) is required to go up to Merrick’s top-floor room, alone, and take him his dinner…

It plays out, in short, like a horror or monster movie: you can’t show the beast too early, there is a certain grammar and pacing involved that you ignore at your peril. And while The Elephant Man handles this convention as well as one would expect, given Lynch’s facility with genre movie tropes, it is strikingly at odds with the tone that the rest of the film works hard to achieve.

Central to the film, from this point on at least, is the idea that beneath the truly horrible deformities, Merrick is a gentle, decent, almost saintly man, infinitely more sinned against than sinning. Virtually everyone who meets him is moved to tears by just what a nice guy he is. Who is the real monster here? is the somewhat trite question the film is asking, although there is also a slightly sharper subplot about whether Treves is truly any less of an exploiter of Merrick than Bytes was.

I mean, this is a very good looking film with fine performances from an array of terrific English actors: apart from Hopkins, Hurt and Jones, it features John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Michael Elphick and Anne Bancroft. (There are a couple of oddities in the cast list, too: Dexter Fletcher, who these days is a rather successful director of bio-pics himself, appears as an urchin, while in a small role is the actor Frederick Treves, the great-nephew of the character Hopkins is actually playing.) As noted, it looks good, too. But I do find it to be terribly sentimental and manipulative, especially considering the abrupt switch from the horror mode it executes.

And it’s not just sentimental, it’s a bit slow, too – or at least, there’s not much of a plot to the film, once Merrick is installed in the hospital. In order to provide anything approaching a conventional dramatic structure, they have to contrive a subplot where Bytes reappears and drags Merrick off to Belgium, from where he has to escape and make his way back to London. From here we are off into a particularly sickly-sweet climax, accompanied by soaring classical music and the quoting of poetry.

As a piece of entertainment I suppose it passes the time very decently, the first time or two at least, but the more you become familiar with the reality of this story, the more questionable much of this film becomes: it’s largely based on Treves’ book about Merrick. The two men were supposedly close friends, but the weird thing is that Treves got Merrick’s name wrong: in reality his first name was Joseph, not John. And yet John Merrick is the name by which Merrick is now widely known. The rest of the film is up to the same standard of biographical fidelity, omitting all kinds of facts that don’t suit the film’s simplistic thesis. Merrick was not born deformed – his condition grew progressively worse throughout his life (exactly what his condition was remains a contentious issue). Perhaps most importantly, it’s not as if he was effectively sold into slavery, as the film suggests – joining the sideshow was Merrick’s own idea.

Well, as we have had cause to note in the past, it’s not at all unusual for historically-based movies to take the odd liberties in the interests of a good story. The question here is whether the story is good enough to justify departing quite so radically from the facts. For all the skill which has gone into the making of The Elephant Man, I’m not sure it is – as noted, it is trite and simplistic, and the keenness with which it adopts horror movie tropes in its opening act makes one really doubt its sincerity, too. An interesting movie, and worth seeing for the cinematography and acting, but not as substantial as its reputation would suggest.

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I was genuinely a bit concerned that I’d peaked too soon by watching The Skin I Live In as only the second film in the current Almodovarathon – this was a genuine case of ‘how do you follow that?’ Well, I decided to grasp the nettle, mix the metaphor, and hurl myself back into the depths of time to 1984, when Almodovar was little-known as a director even in Spain. The film in question is What Have I Done to Deserve This?! – there is some inconsistency over whether to translate the title with a final ? or a !, so I have decided to go with both – the Spanish title of which is the slightly-unwieldy ¿Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto?

The movie is set in then-contemporary Madrid and opens with a visit to the local kendo club, where we find the cleaner, Gloria (Carmen Maura) watching the members waving their swords about with fascination. Once they’ve all gone, Gloria even has a go herself, really getting into those overhead swings. But it turns out they have not all gone, and she stumbles across one of the members, Polo (Luis Hostalot), naked in the shower. A robust and intimate (though consensual) encounter ensues, which Gloria does not find entirely satisfying. (For a long time this seems like a weird prologue which contributes nothing to the rest of the film, but it is setting up a lot of threads which eventually get picked up in the third act.)

Gloria heads home and we slowly learn more about her and the people close to her: she lives in a pokey little flat close to the motorway, with her unpleasant husband Antonio (Angel de Andres Lopez), his mother (Chus Lampreave), and her two children, fourteen-year-old Toni (Juan Martinez), who is dealing heroin at school to fund his dream of becoming a farmer, and twelve-year-old Miguel (Miguel Angel Herranz), whose main distinguishing feature seems to be that he is precociously and promiscuously gay. Gloria’s closest friend amongst her neighbours is Cristal (Veronica Forque), a prostitute whose ambition is to go to Las Vegas, while also living in the building is Juani (Kiti Manver), a bad-tempered dressmaker whose life is often made a misery by her young daughter, who has psychic powers.

A startling array of plotlines and situations develop out of this premise, involving yet more characters: one of Cristal’s clients, a writer (Gonzalo Suarez), hires Gloria as his cleaning lady, but then tries to involve Antonio (whose main talent is being able to falsify handwriting) in a bizarre scheme to fake Hitler’s diaries (the genuine Hitler diary hoax had taken place the previous year, although this involves sweet-talking a German opera singer. Granny and Toni find and adopt a lizard, which they christen Dinero (the lizard’s real name is Carlito). Gloria basically gives Miguel away to his dentist, who is strongly implied to be an insane paedophile, as this should give him a better start in life and cut down on the family bills. Polo pays Cristal to pretend to be his girlfriend during his visits to a sex therapist, who happens to be her client the writer’s brother. It goes on and on like this, increasingly convoluted and ridiculous.

Almodovar (who even makes a preposterous cameo appearance himself, as an opera singer) says it is basically a homage to Italian neorealism, and there are vague signs of the film wanting to address serious social issues: Gloria is clearly suffering from high levels of stress and anxiety and has become addicted to tranquilisers, a situation which seems unlikely to change given the treatment she receives from her family. On the other hand, the notion at the heart of a well-known Roald Dahl story is incorporated into the story virtually unaltered, so you could consider the film a homage to him as well – or possibly the whole thing is just a tribute to throwing vast amounts of mud at a wall and seeing what sticks.

Perhaps that’s just being unfair, though, for while much of What Have I Done to Deserve This?! is wildly, extravagantly silly, the script is actually a lot more coherent than it looks: in the end, everything comes together in a remarkably focussed way,  and the quality of the film is consistently high – you might expect this to be very uneven, but it’s a lot more consistently funny than that. There are a few places where the film seems to be trying a bit too hard to be provocative and outrageous, the paedophile dentist being the most obvious example, but thankfully he’s a minor character. Most of the time the film is just an absurd black comedy.

However, it’s an absurd black comedy with unexpected depths, which are the strongest indication of the kind of direction Almodovar was going to take in future films. No matter how ridiculously unbelievable any of the things in this film become, el maestro somehow manages to keep it all emotionally grounded and involving – there is a warmth and compassion here, even when you least expect it. Almodovar’s chief collaborator in this is Carmen Maura, who is at the heart of the film: it helps that Maura’s character is relatively normal compared to most of those around her, but she not only manages to retain your interest, she even manages to generate real pathos as the story proceeds and Gloria finds herself increasingly isolated and desperate.

It’s this compassion and humanity which makes the film recognisably an Almodovar movie. It is clearly still the work of someone figuring out his craft, and playing with the elements of storytelling which are most interesting to him: outrageous plot developments, handled deadpan; a deep interest in the female characters and their outlook on life; a sense of camp. Still not quite there is the willingness to explore the perspective of the gay characters in quite the same way, while also still absent is the interest in incorporating suspense-story and thriller elements into a character-focused narrative. But for all that Almodovar was still essentially learning his art and working for someone else when he made this film, it has his stamp upon it, and it’s a very engaging and amusing piece of entertainment.

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Before everything went to hell, there was a lot of talk about what an annus mirabilis this was going to be, in certain specific senses at least. The release of Underwater and Colour Out of Space had some people talking about how films based on the work of H.P. Lovecraft were about to finally achieve some mainstream leverage. I was never too sure about that, because just what constitutes a ‘Lovecraftian film’ is to some extent open to question, while it’s not as if Lovecraft’s work hasn’t had a massive influence on the horror genre already, inspiring some classic films along the way. There are also many examples of people making apparently-Lovecraftian films without being aware of his work.

One of the more dubious offerings currently available on the world’s most prominent streaming service not owned by a mouse is Barbara Peeters’ Humanoids from the Deep (known as Monster in some parts of the world), a product of Roger Corman’s exploitation movie conveyor belt production line. It kind of resembles a very dubious precursor of any number of dumb Sci-Fi channel TV movies, or possibly the kind of thing that Hannibal Smith appeared in as a part-time job between A-Team episodes. The film is set in California, in the small fishing town of Noyo, where the locals are perturbed by a mysterious drop in fish numbers.

The leading citizen, as far as we are concerned, is Jim Hill (Doug McClure), who is a decent, fair-minded guy without much of a personality. Everyone else has names like Hank and Deke. Deke, however, is not in the film for long as his fishing boat snags something very odd in its net, shortly after which it explodes in a rather contrived accident. What could be going on? We have seen the poster, plus the rubber glove hands of the thing in the net, so we have our suspicions, but the townsfolk are in the dark. They are more concerned with a deal with a cannery company that could potentially turn the town’s fortunes around. However, the fly in this particular ointment is the local Native American, Johnny Eagle (Anthony Pena), who announces he will be mounting a legal challenge to the building of the new cannery as it is on his tribe’s ancestral lands. There is much ill-spirited grumbling from the rest of the town.

As interesting as this plotline concerning the intersection of economic hardships and racial prejudice in small-town America may be (and, to be honest, it’s not actually that interesting), it is plainly just filler to keep the film ticking along to the point where the monsters can come on in earnest (Humanoids from the Deep is only 80 minutes long but still struggles to fill its running time). Soon enough that point arrives. A young couple fooling around on the beach (it looks horribly cold and the weather is clearly dismal, but they crank fake smiles onto their faces anyway) are attacked by, well, a creature resembling a man in a cheap-ass rubber suit. He is gorily slain, but the monster has other plans for her, tackily enough. Not long after, a young ventriloquist and his improbably hot girlfriend (look, I just report what I see) meet similar fates.

The rising death toll amongst the young people, and the sheer number of bikinis torn off, soon convinces Jim that something is afoot, even if that foot is unconvincingly webbed. He is assisted in his investigations by cannery company scientist Dr Susan Drake (Ann Turkel), who seems to know more than she at first lets on. Eventually she is forced to admit that genetic experiments to accelerate local fish growth have gone wrong and produced a breed of randy fish-men intent on molesting the local female population (‘gone wrong’ is rather an understatement in the circumstances). Can Jim and the scientist save the local salmon festival from disaster?

Roger Corman’s exploitation films have a better than usual chance of being watchable, simply because his policy was to hire talented people and basically let them do what they wanted, once they had satisfied the conventions of whatever genre they were working in. ‘Roger lets you do what you want. Just be sure you put in either a sex scene or an action scene every fifteen minutes,’ said Barbara Peeters in 1978, two years before making Humanoids. Unfortunately, this film proved to be an unhappy experience and saw the end of Corman and Peeters’ professional relationship, simply because – and, as an admirer of many Corman movies, it pains me to say this – the producer felt there wasn’t a sufficiently high level of explicit nudity and sexual violence in the film that Peeters eventually delivered. Additional scenes were filmed, under the direction of Jimmy Murakami, and edited in. As a result, Peeters never worked for Corman again and spent most of the eighties directing episodes of Remington Steele and Falcon Crest.

The extent to which the film focuses on the fish-men’s unchivalrous intentions with respect to the young women of Noyo – and it does bang on about this to a very significant degree – kind of colours the whole experience of watching it. I have a very great tolerance for low-budget monster movies, even ones as formulaic as this one, but when it seems they’re largely being pitched on the sheer quantity of rape they involve, it sours the whole thing for me. It turns it from a trashy film into a genuinely tasteless and nasty one; you do wonder about the kind of thinking involved.

I am kind of reminded of a graphic novel called Neonomicon, written by Alan Moore as a riff on some of Lovecraft’s themes. Lovecraft wrote quite a bit about miscegeny, but did so in an oblique, implied manner – Moore dealt with the same material in a bluntly explicit manner. I mention this because Humanoids from the Deep, a story about aquatic humanoids with an unpleasant reproductive interest in the inhabitants of a small American town, bears a superficial resemblance to Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth, a story about aquatic humanoids with an unpleasant reproductive interest in the inhabitants of a small American town. But in this case, I think the resemblance is only a trick of the light – if this film is derivative, it is only from other films, particularly Creature from the Black Lagoon and Jaws.

Even if you can put the uglier aspects of the narrative to one side, this would still be a hokey, primitive and rather stodgy film, for all that the climax of the story is quite well staged with an impressive sense of scale. (The epilogue of the film is another piece of brazen shockery, for all that there appears to be a call-back to it in the second Alien Vs Predator movie.) At least Doug McClure, veteran of a series of much more family-friendly monster movies, has the decency to look mildly embarrassed throughout. This would be mildly entertaining exploitation nonsense without the extra footage Corman added: as it is, you can see why Peeters and Turkel wanted their names taking off the finished product, for this is really a gratuitously sleazy concoction.

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I honestly can’t remember the first time I saw David Cronenberg’s 1983 film Videodrome. I have strong memories of seeing it early in 1997, when it seemed particularly pertinent to the postgraduate multimedia course I was doing at the time, although I suppose it is entirely possible I’m getting it mixed up with Tetsuo: Iron Man, which definitely showed at around the same time. My doubt partly arises from the fact that I seem to recall watching it as part of (ironically) Moviedrome, the BBC’s cult film strand, but my research indicates that particular showing was a couple of years later. I suppose it doesn’t really matter anyway – plus, slightly losing your grip on the hard facts of reality is entirely appropriate when it comes to this particular film.

It sometimes occurs to me that our universe got a raw deal when it came to Return of the Jedi. Quite apart from the fact that the original conception of the film before George Lucas and Gary Kurtz parted company sounds much more interesting (Luke is drawn to the dark side, Han dies when the Falcon is destroyed, Luke’s sister turns out to be a brand new character), the list of people who nearly directed it is eye-opening – quite apart from Spielberg politely declining, Paul Verhoeven was briefly in the frame, apparently until Lucas saw all of his back catalogue (‘he became worried the Jedi would immediately start f***ing,’ according to Verhoeven), and so was David Cronenberg. Can you imagine Jabba’s palace as conceived by the maker of The Fly and Scanners? However, Cronenberg says that at the time he wasn’t interested in other people’s stories, so he said no and made Videodrome instead (and straight after that did an adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone: hmmm).

The movie (Cronenberg’s eighth) starts off naturalistically enough: James Woods plays Max Renn, a small-time, slightly sleazy TV executive, working for a cable station in then-present-day Toronto. Max’s particular market niche is the provocative and extreme: he is wont to turn down eye-opening Japanese pornography on the grounds it is too gentle and polite. This doesn’t stop him from being a controversial figure, dragged onto chat shows to be taken to task for the moral decline of society. Eventually, however, he comes across something which definitely piques his interest: recordings of a show apparently broadcast as a scrambled signal, not intended for public consumption: itself entitled Videodrome, the show exclusively consists of torture, mutilation and murder, staged in an alarmingly realistic manner.

Max is keen to get the rights to Videodrome, despite the fact that various acquaintances warn him off from it, saying it is not just for real, but also dangerously ideological. Nevertheless, he maintains his interest, not least because his intimate acquaintance Nicki Brand (Debbie Harry), a sado-masochistic radio psychiatrist, has also become fascinated with Videodrome: she heads off to ‘audition’ for the show, and is never seen again.

Max’s enquiries lead him to self-styled ‘media prophet’ Brian O’Blivion, played by Jack Creley (the character is apparently based on Marshall McLuhan, who lectured at the university Cronenberg was studying at), who finally gives him some answers. He suggests that the development of human beings has reached the point where the boundary between physical reality and that of the television screen is beginning to blur and disappear: O’Blivion’s daughter Bianca (Sonja Smits) runs a mission where the homeless are encouraged to watch TV for hours on the end, in the belief this will reintegrate them into wider society. The Videodrome signal is an attempt to artificially corrupt and control this development for political ends: watching the programme causes hallucinations, which in turn influence ‘reality’, causing mutations and disease in the viewer.

Soon enough Max encounters Barry Convex (Leslie Carlson), one of the creators of Videodrome. It turns out the shadowy forces responsible have plans for Max, transforming him into an assassin for their cause – a fleshy slot appears in the front of his torso, through which he can be ‘programmed’ by videotape (Betamax, as VHS tapes turned out to be too chunky for the prosthetic), while his handgun fuses tumorously with his hand. Can he fight off the influence of his new masters, or will Videodrome prove triumphant?

For those of us of a certain age, the words ‘a David Cronenberg film’ carry with them a certain set of associations: grotesque, SF-inflected horror, with the human body twisted almost beyond recognition – but also a piercing intelligence that elevates the picture above simple gory splatter. One can appreciate Cronenberg’s desire to go beyond this and make more conventional films, but no-one has ever done this kind of thing better than him, and Videodrome is one of his most impressive movies. The SF and horror elements only gradually emerge as the film continues; it initially seems almost like a particularly lurid conspiracy thriller, illuminated by a smart discussion of the role and responsibility of the media, particularly television.

It’s really only in this respect that Videodrome shows its age, but its suggestion that people don’t treat anything as real until it’s appeared on a screen feels absolutely relevant to the world today – it’s just a slightly smaller screen than Cronenberg had in mind. The film’s metaphors are grisly and memorable, the succession of images and ideas it produces coming almost too quickly to be properly processed. The first time I watched it properly, some form of cognitive overload did feel like a definite possibility.

These days, I can still appreciate the quality of the film, and the subtleties of its plot are clearer to me. But watching it now, Cronenberg’s admission that they couldn’t actually think of an ending – the one they used was apparently Woods’ own idea – doesn’t really come as a surprise, and I suppose some of the body-horror effects do look a little dated. It seems to me that the removal of a sequence suggesting that the main characters have attained a kind of immortality within the TV medium itself was a mistake, but Cronenberg felt obliged to remove it on philosophical grounds. Nevertheless, this is a strikingly original and highly intelligent film, though managing to hide these things well enough to be more widely accessible as a genre movie, too. A major achievement, no matter which way you view it.

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As part of my general idea to catch up on all the films I’ve got lying around on various formats waiting to be watched, I thought I would have a look at some of the Soviet science fiction movies I downloaded last summer. As I’ve noted, once you get past Solaris and Stalker you really are into obscure territory here, and the same issues come up again and again: you do get a much stronger sense of the debt the western special effects industry owes to George Lucas and ILM, because – certainly once we reach the 1980s – the gulf in technical quality in this area really becomes apparent. Also, Russian film-makers seem to have been even more aware of the potential of using SF to make social and political points, and were very careful to be extra-oblique and even downright disingenuous in order to avoid even giving the impression they were criticising the Soviet establishment.

Both of these things have a bearing on Georgiy Daneliya’s 1986 film Kin-dza-dza!, which on the one hand is an unmistakably Russian film, but on the other appears to owe such a debt to western SF literature and cinema that you can’t help wondering just how much it was influenced by them.

The opening credits roll over a weird, arid alien landscape, but then we abruptly find ourselves in 1980s Moscow, in the company of Vladimir (Stanislav Lyubshin), a slightly cynical but other ideologically sound building site foreman. His wife sends him off to the shops, and on the way he meets a stranger named Gedevan (Levan Gabriadze) who asks for his help in dealing with an unhinged vagrant (Anatoli Serenko). The homeless man claims to be a traveller from outer space and just needs the identification number of their planet in order to get his teleportation device to work. Humouring the man, Vladimir and Gedevan look at the gadget –

– and are startled to find themselves in a desert. The stranger, the other shoppers, and indeed the whole of Moscow has vanished. Based on no evidence whatsoever, Vladimir concludes they have been transported to the Karakum desert in Turkmenistan (he refuses to even consider that they might be in a non-Communist desert) and it’s just a matter of walking to the nearest town. Gedevan is doubtful of his logic but accompanies him anyway.

However, on their journey they encounter a bizarre flying machine resembling an upturned bucket. Upon landing, the craft turns out to be under the nominal control of two of the locals, Be (Yury Yakovlev) and Uef (Yevgeny Leonov). The local language mainly consists of people shouting ‘Koo!’ at each other, but luckily Be and Uef are telepathic and considerate enough to speak to the visitors in Russian and Georgian. It turns out that Vladimir and Gedevan have managed to transport themselves to the planet Pluk in the galaxy of Kin-dza-dza. Luckily, their ship could take them back to Earth (provided they can work out where it is), but in order to do so they will need an expensive and rare widget known as a gravitsapa – and how do they expect to pay for this?

Life on Pluk proves to be unexpectedly complicated, with many subtle details for the new arrival to grasp: the population is divided into two castes, the Chatlans and the Patzaks, with the Patzaks required to show deference by curtseying a lot and wearing a bell on the end of their nose. Social status is further delineated by the colour of someone’s trousers. All of this is enforced by a feared group known as the Ecilops, with the power to tranklukate (whatever that is) offenders or send them to the dreaded Etsikhe (where one is locked inside a metal bathtub for the duration of one’s sentence). Luckily, amongst the most valuable commodities on Pluk are volatile chemicals like the ones in match-heads – so the travellers could be okay, provided they can persuade Vladimir to lay off smoking for a while…

Kin-dza-dza! is one of those films which you watch while going ‘Yes, recognise this bit… yes, this bit is quite familiar too…’: the list of (apparent) influences is a long one. The post-apocalyptic junk aesthetic of Pluk is reminiscent of the later Mad Max films, while the use of a peculiar constructed language or slang (to be honest, the argot of Pluk is so limited it hardly qualifies as a conlang – the whole point of the joke is that the vast majority of words translate as ‘Koo!’) to establish a society also has a distinguished pedigree in SF and fantasy. For me the most obvious reference point, considering this is about everyday Earthmen who find themselves unwilling travellers through absurd alien societies, is Douglas Adams’ The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Stylistically, on the other hand, the film resembles something by Terry Gilliam (working on a very low budget), with perhaps additional help by a well-behaved Luc Besson.

As is often the case, all these disparate influences come together and produce something with a distinctive identity of its own. The film may have been made relatively cheaply, but Daneliya works intelligently within this and the result is a film which is not troubled by obvious over-ambition (there are hardly any special effects shots, but the ones there are – for example, the first appearance and landing of Be and Uef’s ship – are impressively achieved). There is still perhaps something distinctively Russian about the slightly stately pace of the thing (at around two and a quarter hours long, it could easily stand to lose fifteen minutes or half an hour).

Then again, maybe I’m only saying this because western SF-comedy films tend to be light and zippy and not overstay their welcome. Daneliya’s intention is clearly to do more than just raise a few laughs – most of the humour is deadpan and derives from the Earthmen’s responses to what they encounter on Pluk – but to make some satirical points. It would be an overstatement to suggest that this is subtly achieved, but this is part of what Daneliya is trying to say: life on Pluk, and possibly in the wider galaxy, is ridiculous, wildly unfair, and completely arbitrary.

The question is what this satire is aimed at – is Pluk meant to be an analogue of the west, of the Soviet Union, or something else entirely? There are certainly jokes about capitalism in the script – Be and Uef go into a bizarre performance upon first meeting the duo, and Vladimir instantly concludes they are in a capitalist country and will shortly be asked for money – but Vladimir’s own unshakable faith in the Communist system is also the source of some humour. My own feeling is that Daneliya is trying to make a wider point about how all societies must seem ridiculous and arbitrary to outsiders – it is, in a way, the nature of the beast – and perhaps they, and people, really are ridiculous when you consider them objectively. It’s a cynical, philosophical perspective that seems to fit well with the rest of the film’s outlook.

The director makes his points through a solid script that hits all the right beats in the right places, and the leads all provide good performances. As noted, it does go on a bit, and it also displays that tendency of many SF-comedy films to get a bit unravelled in the final act (they introduce time-travel as a plot device, which is never an entirely comforting sign). Nevertheless, you can imagine that this is the kind of film which might have travelled well outside the Soviet Union, but for slightly obscure political reasons (it was suggested that the ubiquitous use of ‘Koo’ was a reference to K. U. Chernenko, the Soviet premier of the day) it was never subtitled in English until many years after the fall of the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, Kin-dza-dza! still feels quite fresh and funny today, suggesting its concerns are more grounded in philosophy than politics.

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Long-term readers may recall that towards the end of last summer, the release of Pain and Glory and an accompanying season of revivals led to my discovering (at long last, some might say) the work of Pedro Almodovar. If there’s a flaw in Pain and Glory, it’s that it’s so rooted in the Almodovar canon that many of its subtleties aren’t apparent to the newcomer (at least, they weren’t to me at the time I saw it), but there’s very little at all wrong with All About My Mother, Talk to Her, or Bad Education, all of which were shown around the same time. I had a holiday booked in September, which meant I had to miss the screening of Volver, but looking on the bright side our trip did take us to places which still have DVD stores and I was able to pick up two boxed sets of Almodovar movies – not quite the complete collection, but most of the major works.

The challenge after such a purchase is finding the time to actually watch all the movies – I have a couple of box sets of Kurosawa movies I bought in 2012 I still haven’t watched all of – but I suppose one of the few advantages of the world being on pause is that one no longer has any serious excuse for not catching up on culture. For no particular reason, I decided to commence what could become an Almodovarathon with his 1987 movie Law of Desire (title en Espanol: La ley del deseo).

This is the movie which first brought Almodovar to wide international attention, although it is actually his sixth film. Perhaps it is therefore no surprise to discover that many elements of the now-recognisable Almodovar style are already present, if perhaps not quite fully developed: the mixture of provocative melodrama with suspense movie tropes, the blurring of the line between fact and fiction, the tendency towards outrageous plot developments.

Eusebio Poncela plays Pablo, a successful gay film director whose latest film has just been released (Law of Desire kicks off with a scene from the film-within-the-film, which appears to mainly be there to challenge the audience). Pablo is involved with a younger man, Juan (Miguel Molina), who isn’t sure he wants a serious relationship or not. They part, and Juan goes to spend his summer on the coast. Pablo devotes himself to working on his next project, a stage play to star his sister Tina (Carmen Maura), a transsexual.

While doing so he encounters Antonio (Antonio Banderas), a young man who initially seems a bit conflicted, to say the least. However, after spending the night with Pablo, Antonio becomes obsessed with him to the point of violent possessiveness…

It takes quite a while for this to become apparent, however: the film begins by looking very much like a ‘conventional’ drama about the life of a writer and film director and those around him (to the extent that any film directed by Almodovar can be described as conventional, anyway). Only gradually – but, it must be said, fairly comprehensively – does it slide into the realms of the suspense thriller. By the end, however, there has been a murder, a car crash, someone has been in hospital with a rather convenient case of amnesia, there has been some stalking, a hostage crisis, gunfire and a suicide.

Even then, however, deep in the third act Almodovar still finds time for a scene between Pablo and Tina which is obviously very significant: Pablo is in serious trouble by this point, but this does trigger what is clearly the first serious conversation he and his sister have had in many years. It almost goes without saying that the back-story Tina reveals (which is almost wholly incidental to the plot, if not her character) is far-fetched to the point of being completely ludicrous. As ever with Almodovar, you end up accepting it, though this is largely due to the strength of Carmen Maura’s performance – Maura’s character is one of the elements of the film which is most memorable, and even though she is really a secondary character, it almost functions as a character piece about her.

You would really expect it to be more about the character of Pablo, but he does remain an oddly passive presence at the centre of the story. Perhaps Law of Desire does have something to say about the ironies of attraction – Pablo pursues Juan, who isn’t sure if he wants him, and tries to reject Antonio, who is besotted with him – but this is left implicit; the film always seems to have other things on its mind. It’s not that Eusebio Poncela (resembling, to my mind, Graham Chapman in his later years) gives a particularly bad performance, but he is out-horsepowered by both Maura and Antonio Banderas.

Antonio Banderas is such an established face in Hollywood movies now that I suppose it’s quite possible to have followed his career reasonably closely and still not be aware that he rose to fame off the back of a string of fairly provocative movies made with Almodovar: possibly the closest Hollywood ever came to acknowledging this was in Philadelphia, where he was cast as Tom Hanks’ lover. Here, Banderas’ sheer charisma, coupled to the fact that he is a very handsome chap, means that you’re looking at him whenever he’s on the screen: it doesn’t hurt that his character is the main driver of the plot, either.

If you were watching Law of Desire as a ‘new’ movie, with no idea of its historical context, I imagine you would conclude that it’s a curious but mostly successful attempt at combining elements of drama and thriller: possibly also that it’s equally successful in including LGBT elements in a film which is still appealing to a mainstream audience. All of this obviously true – it’s only when you consider the heights to which Almodovar was later to take this kind of film that you become aware of the ways in which this one is not quite as deft or assured or as satisfying. Nevertheless, Almodovar himself says this is the most important film in his career, and given that historical context, you can see what he means.

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