When Pedro Almodóvar’s most recent film, I’m So Excited!, debuted in 2013, it raised a few eyebrows for a scene in which a self-described psychic played by Lola Dueñas has sex with an unconscious male passenger. The fact that the moment, played as high-spirited comedy, caused any stir at all suggested how much Almodóvar’s films have changed over the years. This was, after all, the director who got laughs in 1984’s What Have I Done To Deserve This? by having a mother sell her pubescent son into sex slavery to avoid paying a dental bill. Almodóvar didn’t stop exploring transgressive material in later years, but he turned up the somberness and artfulness, so much so that the throwback to those early, funnier years left some fans unprepared. Released on the heels of the breakthrough success of 1988’s Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! comes from a transitional phase in his career, one in which he was using bigger budgets to hone his aesthetic, create characters with greater depth, but still indulge a punkish urge to shock.
The film’s premise remains shocking, too: Victoria Abril plays Marina, an actor who’s just wrapped work on her latest film when she’s taken captive in her own home by the 23-year-old Ricky (Antonio Banderas), until recently a lifelong resident of mental hospitals, who tells her she’ll come to love him. And—despite being punched, bound, and otherwise compelled to do Ricky’s bidding—in time she does. The scandalous film of 1990, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! attracted controversy on two fronts: Threatened with an X rating thanks to several sexually explicit scenes, it was released unrated while distributor Miramax sued the MPAA. (It was one of the films that inspired the never-to-mean-much NC-17 rating.) Others raised objections to, in Owen Gleiberman’s words, its “retro-sexist hook.” “Enlightened audiences may go for it precisely because they’ll have to do ideological somersaults to justify it,” his Entertainment Weekly review continued. Audiences did go for it, but it seems to have left a bitter aftertaste: Two years later, Caryn James put it in the “evidence against” column of an article headlined “Almodovar, Adrift In Sexism.”
Like Women On The Verge, Tie Me Up! takes place in a world between quotation marks, a heightened reality perhaps not meant to be taken entirely seriously. Unlike Women On The Verge, however, those quotation marks sometimes seem at odds with the action taking place between them. Abril and Banderas are both terrific as the lovers-to-be. She’s fighting back a past that includes heroin addiction and a career in pornography. He’s struggling to find a normal life on the outside, having known only abuse and institutionalization. She’s tough and cynical. He’s as much puppy dog as man. Almodóvar makes it easy to root for them to get together and balance each other out, but that means getting past the situation that brought them together in the first place, and the tension makes the movie queasy even when it’s compelling.
Still, there’s much to like here, starting with the way Almodóvar makes every frame a visual delight, packing them with warm colors and tchotchkes, and ending with a happy final scene shot through with ambiguity. It’s also clearly the work of a filmmaker in love with his craft. Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! only has a few locations, but Almodóvar takes advantage of every inch of them. Particularly good: an opening on the set of Marina’s latest job, a cheesy-looking horror movie that’s nonetheless a passion project for its director Maximo (Francisco Rabal). Paralyzed after a stroke, Maximo directs from his wheelchair and tells a journalist, “When you put your heart and genitals into something, it’s always personal.” It sounds like a sentiment Almodóvar would share, even if the combination of hearts, genitals, and personal passion sometimes ends up sending confusing messages.
The first of hopefully many Almodóvar films to be released on Criterion, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! offers a good, though not overwhelming, array of extras. There’s a new making-of documentary that talks to all the key players, and a chat with longtime Almodóvar champion Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics. Also good: a touching, chummy 2003 interview between Almodóvar and Banderas. Some of the best supplementary material is in the booklet, including a long interview between Wes Anderson and critic Kent Jones in which they share their mutual appreciation for Almodóvar’s work.