Law of Desire August 4, 2018
1 Hr., 42 Mins.
It can be jarring to go back to the Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar’s developmental days after basking in the glory of the frequently masterful features he made in the late 1990s and aughts. The filmmaker, as much a dedicated stylist as an all-hands-on-deck auteur, is now known for making movies as artistically vibrant as they are emotionally affecting. His most recent project, Julieta, from 2016, was a luscious family drama that expertly yoked visual decadence with nuance — a skill that has resulted in a horde of masterpieces over the last couple of decades.
By contrast, his 1980s, while stylistically interesting, were more or less fortified by throwaway melodramas with a penchant for getting carried away narratively for the sake of getting carried away. His breakthrough, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) was a step forward: It was arguably the first movie he made in which his trademark Technicolor style was backed by material worth celebrating. It too was driven by an off-the-rails storyline, but by adorning the scenery with screwball comic sensibilities, its mania felt built-in and thus natural. Comparatively, the majority of his ‘80s products were sometimes strained and unnecessarily frenzied.
Law of Desire (1987), the movie Almodóvar made shortly before Women, suffers from the aforementioned problem: While aesthetically appealing — it is distinguished by its mélange of warmly hued set and costume design — it gets less fun the more it advances. In the movie, the lanky Eusebio Poncela portrays Pablo, a successful film director in a transitional period. Although his latest feature, the controversial “The Paradigms of the Mussel,” has been well-received, he is more concerned with what his next project will be, and whether his longtime lover, the younger Juan (Miguel Molina), will ever commit to him.
Both problems are seemingly resolved early in the film. He decides that his next artistic endeavor will be a stage adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s monologue play The Human Voice, from 1930, and that his transgender sister, the self-assured Tina (Carmen Maura), will be the star. As for Juan, it is made certain that their relationship, as loving as it can be, is bound to be transient: the latter intends to go back to his hometown for the summer and work in a beachside bar to pass the time. He doesn’t seem disposed to changing his mind.
Law of Desire’s crux is made clear on the opening night of The Human Voice, around the time we’re introduced to Antonio (Antonio Banderas), a young, conservatively minded brunette who attends the show. Antonio, who is gay and has never been in a relationship, finds himself infatuated with Pablo by the time the curtains close. Later, he introduces himself. Pablo, feeling lonely in part due to his problems with Juan, takes him back to his apartment. They spend the night together. Antonio immediately believes he and Pablo are going to last forever. The latter, in contrast, thinks he’s just had a one-night stand. Antonio, who proves himself possessive and dangerous, won’t have it — and this leads the movie to become progressively splashy.
It is likely that Almodóvar intended Law of Desire to be an inverse of the classic
Hollywood melodrama; as many John Waters-style transgressions as recognizably Douglas Sirkian set pieces proliferate. Graphically depicted sex acts bedeck the setting, and so do classic soaper plot twists, like climactic amnesia, life-or-death romantic conflicts, and pulpy explosions of violence.
Initially, this bricolage of new and old propensities come together compellingly. But then the film starts accommodating old-fashioned, increasingly overbearing soap operatics. The ending is reminiscent of something you’d find in a Brian De Palma movie: it’s admirably audacious, but not quite believable, either. This sort of reaction applies to most of Law of Desire. Although it begins an inspired dark comedy, its grip loosens the more madcap it becomes — by the third act, I was disposed to let go in the midst of all the furor. Maura’s performance is worth noting, though: When the movie threatens to eat itself, she remains a commanding presence, and is heartbreaking during a pivotal, final-act confession.
Despite its imperfections, the feature is still an integral part of Almodóvar’s filmography. It was his first film to prominently center itself around LGBTQ+ characters, which was something he would spotlight further in the following decades. It was also the first movie Almodóvar would produce and release independently. And the movie, despite being controversial upon release, was a considerable hit. But to watch Law of Desire now is to see a filmmaker still in the process of refining his directorial voice. While I watched it, I couldn’t help but think about what he’d do later on — and what he’d do better. C+