|About midway through Pedro Almodóvar’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (¡Atame!), a young man tells the object of his affection, “I’m 23 years old, I have 50,000 pesetas, and I’m alone in the world. I’ll try to be a good husband to you, and a good father to your kids.” The words are heartfelt and the young man’s sentiments are genuine. The only problem is that he is a recently released mental patient, she is an ex-porn star and reformed heroin junkie, and he has kidnapped her and is holding her prisoner in her own apartment.|
And there we have the setup of Almodóvar’s deranged, provocative romance, which somehow manages to generate a real sense of affection amid the handcuffs, surgical tape, and rope. Antonio Banderas plays Ricki, the handsome young man who has spent his entire life an orphan, going in and out of orphanages, reform schools, and later mental hospitals before being set free, after which he immediate goes after Marina (Victoria Abril), on whom he has developed a, let’s say, unhealthy fixation. Yet, because this is an Almodóvar film, nothing happens as it should, and the unexpected should be expected at every turn.
Ricki kidnaps Marina and holds her in her apartment so she can “get to know him better.” He honestly believes that if Marina just spends some time with him, she will grow to love him the way he loves her, and while this sounds absurd to the rational human being, Almodóvar’s characters are seldom rational. After being initially slapped around and then tied to the bed, Marina begins to develop romantic feelings for Ricki, especially after he is beat up by drug dealers when he tries to get some pain killers to soothe her excruciating tooth ache. At one point, she actually requests that he tie her up so she won’t be tempted to escape. Few directors could make that moment touching, but Almodóvar pulls it off.
While the idea of Marina falling in love with her male captor seems to vindicate Ricki’s method, Almodóvar’s cinematic roots argue against such a literal reading. One of his greatest influences was Luis Buñuel, who was a master of the use of the irrational and the surreal in films like The Exterminating Angel (1962) and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). Buñuel delighted in putting characters into situations and forcing them to work within the strict confines of his universe, which more often than not conflicted with rational thought. Thus, the pleasure in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! lies in watching Almodóvar take a scenario of absolute absurdity and slowly reveal the genuine human emotions underneath. There is really no satisfactory explanation as to why Marina begins to feel affection for Ricki, except that his character is gradually exposed as something other than a violent kidnapper. In the end, Ricki—who turns out to be more vulnerable than sadistic, more naïve than cunning—just wants to be part of a family, a sentiment with which virtually everyone can empathize.
Although most of the action is confined to various interiors instead of the bustling streets of Madrid that dominate Almodóvar’s earlier work, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is still a visually sumptuous film. Almodóvar and cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine, with whom he had previously worked on Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) and with whom he would work again on four later films, make dynamic use of color, shooting most of the interiors with flat, bright lights that give the backgrounds an almost cartoonish appearance. The set design is consistently intriguing, bordering on the weird without feeling fully unrealistic. Almodóvar also leaves plenty of room to play with the film’s tone, so that at various points it feels like a deranged rom-com, a somber melodrama, or a suspense thriller in the Hitchcock mold. He isn’t always successful in shifting from one tone to the next, which makes the film feel a bit uneven at times, but it is never anything less than fascinating.
Both Antonio Banderas and Victoria Abril were veteran Almodóvar collaborators—it was his fifth of seven collaborations and her second of four—and they both deliver strong, nuanced performances that go a long way toward selling the film’s more surprising developments. Loles León, who had also played a role in Women on the Verge, adds another layer of caustic humor as Marina’s long-suffering sister, while veteran Spanish actor Francisco Rabal plays Maximo Espejo, a paralyzed film director who is making his last film with Marina as the heroine. He is also obsessed with the actress, albeit in a way that is far less innocent than Ricki’s. Unfortuntely, the film-within-a-film subplot is a bit distracting, although it provides a few scathing moments, such as when Maximo decides to rewrite the end of the film because the producer’s wife wants to keep the couch being used in the final scene, and to film it as written would require the couch to be stained with fake blood. Almodóvar is known for being discursive, and here he takes a few potshots at the filmmaking process, as well as obsessive directors, that don’t fully pay off.
Whatever its cinematic merits, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! became a cause célèbre in the spring of 1990 when the MPAA slapped it with an X rating due to the film’s sexual content (particularly the lovemaking scene between Ricki and Marina, which is explicit, but never feels gratuitous because it so effectively dramatizes how she is finally falling in love with him). Almodóvar, who was already well established as an international filmmaker of significant renown, was incensed that his film was effectively associated with pornography, and he disparaged the MPAA openly in numerous interviews, calling them censors and fascists (it would hardly be the last run-in he would have with the ratings board, as his later films Kika and Bad Education were released unrated and with an NC-17 rating, respectively).
Harvey and Bob Weinstein, the heads of Miramax, the film’s stateside distributor, were also incensed—or, so they would have you believe. In fact, they were quite pleased that the film was given an X rating and actually took steps to ensure that the rating wouldn’t be reassessed and possibly overturned because they had already used the X ratings given to two of their earlier releases—Michael Caton-Jones’s Scandal (1989) and Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989)—as publicity fodder, turning a couple of obscure foreign art films that otherwise might not have made a dent in the theatrical market into minor hits. However, Miramax went the extra mile and actually filed a lawsuit against the MPAA, arguing that Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!’s X rating was “arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable.” The suit was thrown out, but later that year the MPAA finally discarded the dreaded X rating and created the NC-17 rating as a means of distinguishing films with strong adult content from straight pornography. Of course, that has done little to affect the ratings system as a whole, as studios and distributors still bend over backwards to avoid the NC-17 rating, just as they did the X. However, the fracas over Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! ensured that it would forever remain a notorious film, even if that notoriety has the unfortunate effect of sometimes overshadowing its better qualities.
Copyright ©2014 James Kendrick
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Overall Rating: (3)
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