Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! was the follow-up to Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown which in the UK/US and much of the international market was Pedro Almodóvar’s break-out film. What this meant for me was a period of catching up on the earlier films and looking out for the new ones as they arrived. I must have watched Tie MeUp! Tie Me Down! in the early 1990s, probably on a rented VHS tape. I don’t remember too much about that viewing but I doubt that I fully appreciated the beauty of the colours and art direction or indeed the many other striking features. Over time I began to realise that the more of Almodóvar’s films I saw, the more my appreciation grew and the more enjoyable the films became and possibly the more I understood about how they worked. MUBI UK currently offers a selection of Almodóvar titles and watching Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! in HD this time was a joy – but also raised quite a few questions.
The story of the film is relatively straightforward. Marina (Victoria Abril) has been a porn actress and is now starring in a mainstream genre film for an ageing director who is a little obsessed with her. Ricky (Antonio Banderas) is a young man of 23 who has spent most of his life in care and for the last few years has been kept in a state home for observation of his mental health. But now he has been deemed fit to join the wider community and he is released having learned a number of trades to go alongside his drawing abilities. His first action is to seek out Marina and to kidnap her in the belief that as she gets to know him, she will fall in love with him and agree to marry him and together produce a family. Not until the latter part of the narrative will we learn more of Ricky’s early life and what has informed his quest.
In many ways this is a familiar Almodóvar scenario but the elements of the story perhaps refer back to the earlier films a little more than some of the other post-1988 films. Certainly the film initially caused some classification problems in territories outside of Spain. In the US it was first classified as an ‘X’ before eventually being re-classified as ‘NC 17′. In the UK it received an ’18’ certificate, now reduced to ’15’. Almodóvar began his filmmaking career as a provocateur in that strange period after the death of Franco in 1975, using stories about sexuality, drug use and ‘excess’ to expose and undermine the conservative ideologies that had held Spain in thrall for decades. Gradually his style has matured but it still carries the promise of something disruptive. In 2021, however, in the age of #metoo, how should we approach these earlier films? When Ricky breaks in to Marina’s flat he assaults her and later ties her up and tapes over her mouth. In the ensuing interchanges in Marina’s bedroom and bathroom she is sometimes naked or partially dressed. In what Kim Newman in his Monthly Film Bulletin review from July 1990 refers to as Almodóvar’s “regulation sleaze”, we have already seen Marina in her bath indulging in a little erotic play with a motorised frogman (perhaps a porn actress doubled for Ms Abril?) and we’ve seen Marina ‘posing’ in a conventional vamp mode in the film she has just finished. But is there anything here to suggest that Almodóvar is exploiting his star? I think one of the challenges offered by the film is the detailed plot which if taken as the basis for a realist drama may be too disturbing and/or offensive for many audiences. But, remember that this is an Almodóvar film – and a sumptuous melodrama. Trying to see it as a realist exploration of a ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ narrative is a mistake, I think.
As Newman also points out, Almodóvar doesn’t attempt to develop anything around the fetish possibilities of bondage – which apparently is what so disturbed the MPAA in the US. I wonder what Hitchcock in 1989 would have developed with the same script possibilities? Overall I thought this was almost a ‘sweet’ movie and [SPOILER!] they do eventually get it together. As well as the hugely appealing performances by the two leads, Ennio Morricone’s score is often gorgeous and almost unbearably tender at one point. There are some well-known critics who really seemed to dislike the film or felt unable to come to terms with it when it first appeared. A ‘dark romantic comedy’ is one description, but I’ve seen references to gialli and particularly Dario Argento, mainly related to the ‘film within a film’ in which Marina is appearing titled Midnight Phantom. Almodóvar teases us with a poster on the wall in the Midnight Phantom cutting room for the original version of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers – the film which satirises the idea of ‘pod people’. Is this a possible reference to audiences who are so brainwashed by conservative ideology that they can’t appreciate what’s really going on? For me the key genre is screwball comedy and this relates to the playing by Victoria Abril and Antonio Banderas. I think also that not enough attention is played to the closing section of the film when Ricky tries to find the village and the house in Extremadura where he lived as a child. Almodóvar often draws upon his own experiences as a boy from rural La Mancha who travelled to Madrid to ‘find himself’. He also often includes stories about women like his mother – this time Marina’s mother – and the women he met in Madrid. The same theme is crucial in Volver (2006) and also in his most recent feature Pain and Glory (2019) – which stars Banderas as an ageing film director thinking about his childhood, this time in a cave village community in Valencia. It’s worth remembering too that Marina is trying to go clean after years of drug use and that she has a little family melodrama of her own which includes her sister and her mother.
I genuinely enjoyed this film but I’m worried that the subject matter will already have put some readers off. I thought I’d check out the the film scholar take on the film to see if I was out on a limb. Rob Stone in his 2002 Spanish Cinema book from Longman offers a detailed study of the film, considering Banderas as star and exploring his presentation of ideas about sexuality in the context of Spanish society in the period and Almodóvar’s position as an important cultural figure. At one point he suggests: “For all its scandalous reputation ¡Átame! is the most romantic of features, wholly celebratory in its final union of our beauty and her beast . . .” I’m not going to attempt to present the whole of Stone’s complex analysis and how he reaches this conclusion, but it is certainly convincing for me. I do realise however that I’ve not mentioned the ‘excessive’ use of Christian imagery in the opening titles and in Marina’s apartment. ¡Átame! is a very rich text. But in their book Contemporary Spanish Cinema (Manchester University Press 1998) Barry Jordan & Rikki Morgan-Tamosunas add a warning to their similar analysis of the film. Referring back to her 1995 contribution to Me Jane. Masculinity, Movies and Women, eds Kirkham and Thumin, Morgan-Tamosunas makes a prescient observation. She argues that Almodóvar’s arguments might work:
within the fictional world that he constructs, free from the constraints of dominant ideological concepts, but that his audiences inhabit a world in which the repression of women is too deeply entrenched within social and psychological consciousness for such representations to be entirely free from mysogynistic interpretation. (1998: 116)
I can’t argue with that. Almodóvar has managed to continue to develop his body of work but it has been a long and complex development and watching the early films now in the current context of #metoo could certainly be seen as disturbing. I think that viewing ¡Átame! in 2021 should make us consider the history of artistic representations carefully and encourage us to read films with more attention to how and why they were constructed in ways which might disturb us. If you’ve never seen Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! I urge you to give it a try and to let it run all the way through before you think about the critics’ response.