At this point, it’s old news that Hollywood and cinema from around the globe has a distasteful history of glorifying abusive relationships. You only need to look as far as this coming box office weekend to find evidence of such films still getting produced. Sure, it was based on a popular franchise of somehow published Twilight fan fiction, but on its way to making $571 million, Fifty Shades of Grey makes certain to highlight an aesthetic attractiveness and titillation to an onscreen romance defined by emotional and physical abuse.
All of this offers an interesting retrospective for Pedro Almodóvar’s controversial Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, a dark and exceedingly uncomfortable romance dramedy about a man released from a mental hospital (Antonio Banderas) who tracks down a former porn star and drug addict he once had relations with (Victoria Abril) and kidnaps her in the hopes that she’ll fall in love with him. Just from the premise alone, Almodóvar’s film seems tailor-made for finding itself in hot water. Don’t fret, though, because Almodóvar has no interest in venerating this sort of relationship, though like any provocateur, he’s going to have some sick fun with the audience’s expectations.
For younger viewers previously unfamiliar with Almodóvar – it should be noted this is the first film of his I’ve seen – you’ll find that his visual sense is strongly akin to Wes Anderson in his use of garish color palettes to make the mise-en-scène pop and purposefully call attention to the focal points of the frame. But while most cases of Anderson’s use of color bears some semblance of uniformity, Almodóvar’s in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down goes all over the map with light and vibrant hues of blue, green, red and orange. It’s a purposeful clash that draws our attention, tells us where to look and exists as a visual rebellion, of sorts.
It may bear the mark of the decade it left behind, but so does Ennio Morricone’s curious score. In what can only be described as electronic camp, Morricone’s compositions bounce in and out between the romantic and the sinister, often to the confusion of audience members as the film is in the early stages of labeling Banderas’s Ricky as an amorous man or unbalanced sociopath. But, the amalgamation of production design and score is key here, and in fact is reminiscent of Brian De Palma’s work, particularly 1984’s Body Double.
Almodóvar uses both similarly in their respective conflicts with the film’s tone, and derives most of the film’s humor from those contradictions. There are a few instances when Almodóvar’s irreverently pitch black humor is made explicit in the language, but he’d much rather emotionally unsettle his viewers by, for instance, having Banderas’s Ricky carry a bound and gagged Marina (Abril) across the threshold amidst the most dazzling array of reds and blues. It isn’t just the context of the scene that’s uncomfortable, but arguably, it’s the choice of color that makes this feeling even more pronounced.
That sort of responsibility is what speaks to Almodóvar’s cunningly sensitive direction, as well as José Luis Alcaine’s cinematography. The aesthetics never make the premise any less disturbing, but rather heighten our discomfort at their deliberate opposition. Additionally, Almodóvar never forgets who his primary protagonist in these scenes is. Up until Marina’s capture, we never learn much about Ricky aside from his being released from a mental hospital, casual thievery and stalker characteristics.
Almodóvar builds a rich character around Marina in very little time to ensure reads the film as her story alone rather than her and Ricky’s. Additionally, after Marina’s capture, she’s often staged at the forefront or as the overall focal point in the frame, even when Ricky is speaking. It’s as if Almodóvar made specifically certain that the audience continue to identify with her rather than her captor.
Most integral, however, is his injection of political contexts related to the establishment of fascism in Spain, making for a story more intelligent and symbolic than it would initally appear on the surface. Almodóvar is a director born out of Francoist Spain, and his belonging to the countercultural La Movida Madrileña thoroughly influenced his early directorial work with taboo and transgressive themes. Like Franco and his, or perhaps any fascist regime, Ricky makes a number of idealistic promises to cover up his violent streak, especially as it relates to their kids, i.e. the future generation. Such sentiment is underlined in an eerily satirical segment when Ricky and Marina watch a video hailing the forward-thinking values of German nationalism as opposed Spanish liberalism.
The idea of something utopian is ultimately too attractive to ignore, and much like Spain, Marina gives in to Ricky’s controlling ways and falls in love with him in the hope that these promises will be fulfilled. Deeply rooted in fascism is a culture of repression, and not only does Almodóvar’s filmmaking style, from his themes to his production design, scream of gleeful upheaval, but it also uses his defining decrying of fascism as a vehicle, tragic as it is, for reminding Spanish viewers of the country’s past and how it came to be.
Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is unabashedly hard viewing for anyone, and for others who have yet to see their first Almodóvar film, perhaps you shouldn’t choose this one. But for those who do decide this film is worth the risk, there is an undeniable visual and intellectual richness that is tempting to savor in spite of the content provided. The colors are bright, but it’s dark inside.
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