DVD Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!
Pedro Almodóvar’s films are vibrant, hectic and entertaining; love and desire in all their myriad, sometimes perverse, forms dominate his work, and often one does not know whether to be shocked or amused. More than any other Spanish director, Pedro Almodovar makes films about women; sympathetic women, neurotic women, sometimes psychotic women. While darker themes are explored in his cinema, Almodóvar tends to delight in the spectacularly entertaining, but Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (¡Átame!), his eighth film, was received seriously by feminists and critics alike.
Almodóvar’s films are notable for their colourful mise-en-scene and bizarre scenarios and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is no different. Before Antonio Banderas was internationally lusted after for his roles in Desperado/ Zorro (depending on the age of the viewer in question), he played the fool for Almodóvar, and in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! he plays Ricky, a young man newly released from a psychiatric institute, even though his apparent sanity is questionable at best and non-existent at worst.
Using a magazine article as his guide, Ricky tracks down Marina (Victoria Abril), an ex-porn star and heroin addict, gaining access to her dressing room with ridiculous ease. Ricky breaches the sanctity of the film set where she works and steals Marina’s keys. Meanwhile we are given a self-referential subplot in the character of the paraplegic director, Maximo (Francisco Rabal) who is told, “you’re known as a woman’s director,” even as he ogles Marina, displaying a more than professional interest in her work.
When Ricky tries and fails to attract Marina’s attention, his next recourse is to break into her apartment, where he ties her up, because that way she will get to know him – and consequently fall in love with him. Ricky tells Marina, “I’m 23 years old, I have fifty thousand pesetas and I am alone in the world. I will try to be a good husband for you and a good father for your children.” In another circumstance, a woman would perhaps swoon at this declaration, but Marina is understandably unmoved.
The film charts the development of the relationship between captor and captive, where Ricky is startlingly sane for one so clearly insane: at the start of the kidnapping, he calmly asks Marina to quit throwing things around, and, at one point, asks her to be less selfish, and to think of others – she has just informed him that she will never love him, ever. He talks about all he has done for her while he gags her and binds her hands and feet with rope, but is not without compassion, and ventures out into the night to find painkillers for Marina’s toothache, where he is set upon by a dealer whom he had previously mugged. When he returns to Marina, all bruised and bloody, she is moved (whether by lust or strategically) and the two have sex, which eventually blossoms into something more.
Meanwhile Marina’s sister, Lola (Loles Léon), is searching for her and Maximo is also desperate to locate the star. Marina ultimately escapes but cannot deny that her feelings for her kidnapper have changed, leading to a dramatically unrealistic ending…
As with most of Almodóvar’s cinema, there is a lot of borrowing from popular culture in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! The opening scene, with its framing of the mental institution, and its accompanying sinister score, is reminiscent of a Hitchcock film, and the colours and imagery come from the pop art era. This is a film of contrasts: between the religious imagery in Marina’s apartment and her fame as a porn actress and junkie; the voyeuristic appreciation/objectification of women in the film (one of the nurses who approaches Ricky is all legs, her head never appearing in the frame, and the camera frequently lingers on Abril’s legs or breasts) and the unglamorous portrayal of them urinating; and the outrageousness of the situation Marina finds herself in and the mundane conversations that punctuate the film – at one point, Ricky and Marina’s doctor discuss whether toothache, earache or colic is more painful, and when out shopping for tape and rope Ricky chats casually with salesmen.
The hectic, frenzied pace of the film lends a feeling of unreality.
On a purely aesthetic level, the film is a pleasure to watch, dominated as it is by wide shots of large, brightly-coloured rooms and beautiful people, but while this is a highly entertaining film, the entire premise is potentially compromised by its regressive imagining of women. The juxtaposition of Ricky’s ‘romantic’ moments and the violence he demonstrates against Marina is genuinely shocking, and this brutality is certainly one of the reasons feminists had a problem with this film. While it may be acceptable for women to admit between themselves that a kidnap fantasy excites them, for a man to make a film where a modern, liberal woman falls in love with a man who has tied her up and broken her tooth has entirely different implications. However, Ricky is not the potent and dangerous male that the politically correct would have us fear, and when he is attacked and beaten, Marina comforts him and then asserts herself by taking control during a very unsexy sex scene (Almodóvar seems determined to remove the myth of dignified fornication).
The hectic, frenzied pace of the film lends a feeling of unreality, and scenes where Lola waters plants against an impossibly blue sky add to that sense. Whether it is Ricky’s obstacle-free path to Marina’s door, a scene where Maximo circles pointlessly in his wheelchair, or a woman’s blasé acceptance of her weight gain, the action plays out on a surreal level right until the end of Marina’s ordeal – it is not until the final scene that we escape the garish colours of Madrid to see Ricky in the muted landscape of his early childhood, and we can perhaps imagine that we have entered the ‘real’ world. This change of palette just heightens the melodramatic finale, however, and there is nothing believable about the reunion of Ricky and Marina.
Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! may divide viewers, but the acting is undeniably worthy of praise, the editing is seamless, and, in defence of Almodóvar’s plot, at least Marina’s decision about her future is her own – and that choice is arguably what the feminist movement is all about. As a film, it succeeds on nearly every level, held back mainly by its questionable politics.
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