No matter if his protagonists are deranged or distraught, happy or sad, or if his stories are light or dark, comedic or tragic, the films of Pedro Almodóvar are usually at the very least enjoyable. Even at their most disturbing, there is something inescapably jubilant about his lavish use of color, his vibrant characters, and his unceasing passion for life and filmmaking. And when he aims to make something purely amusing, the results can be astonishing. It is for all of these reasons that Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, surprisingly the first Almodóvar film released by the Criterion Collection, is such a treat.
In this 1989 feature, made just after Almodóvar’s award-winning breakthrough Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Victoria Abril stars as junkie porn star turned respectable leading lady Marina Osorio, the object of affection and obsession for Antonio Banderas’ Ricki, a newly released mental patient. Prior to Ricki’s discharge, the institution director tells him he is “not a normal person,” something that should be obvious, and certainly is to the audience, but he is nevertheless set free. Meanwhile, Marina is on the set of a rather unassuming horror movie where she is under the watchful eye of her sister Lola (Loles León)—wary of her sister’s potentially returning drug habit—and the voyeuristic eye of the film’s lustful director, Máximo Espejo (Francisco Rabal), who is partially paralyzed due to a stroke and is confined to his mobile “electric chair.”
Once Ricki arrives on the set of the fictional film, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! begins to mirror the goofy horror picture in production. After he dons a ridiculous long hair wig, Ricki wanders in the background with his eye on Marina, but when he finally gets her attention, she brushes him off. More drastic measures will be necessary. While these sequences and those when Ricki first arrives at Marina’s apartment are played like a horror film, with his stalking around and the suspenseful score by Ennio Morricone, the tonal fluctuations of the film betray any perceived terror. It’s hard to take any threat too seriously when Almodóvar is clearly having so much fun with it.
Apparently assuming the way to a woman’s heart is through home invasion and kidnapping, Ricki forces himself through Marina’s door, headbutts her, and proceeds to tie her up. He does this, he says, so that they will get to know each other; he’s quite sure she will love him. Though he is clearly not of sound mind and has an evident capacity for violence, he is quickly apologetic and remains certain that she will, eventually, succumb to his charms and they will live happily ever after. He has even given her a heart-shaped box of candy (“Nice touch, huh?” he proudly asks), so come on, how bad can he be? At one point, the editor of the film within the film says of her work, “It’s more a love story than a horror story,” and ultimately, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! itself ends up being one unconventional love story.
So much of what defines Almodóvar’s cinema is on display in this film. To begin with, nearly every character is charged with a sexual current, their physical needs and mental preoccupations constantly striving toward carnal gratification. And as is typical with Almodóvar, this is more often than not played for laughs, particularly as the individuals struggle to balance appropriate looking and suggestive dialogue with actual contact. The instant sexual connection between Ricki and Marina gives their particular situation a precarious tension conveyed by their fluctuating positions in frame and their evolving active/reactive behaviors as they progressively grow more at ease with each other. Almodóvar frequently holds a single shot in order to witness their budding yet awkwardly promising relationship of comfort and familiarity. With characteristically little camera movement, save for occasional and generally innocuous track or dolly, and with relatively limited editing, Almodóvar’s greatest stylistic touch are his carefully arranged compositions, unique angles, and his orchestration of characters in relation to each other and their setting.
It is stated that Rabal’s filmmaker character is known as an actresses’ director, and the same could easily be applied to Almodóvar. From Carmen Maura to Penélope Cruz, he has worked with some exceptional women, and the roles he creates allow them to prosper to their fullest potential; Abril and León are no exception here. Banderas considers his role in this film a sort of culmination of his prior work with Almodóvar, and though he is dangerously kooky and this movie as much as any helped put him on the international map, it is the ladies who turn in the most engaging and multifaceted performances.
Those who work with Almodóvar are quick to acknowledge his influence and his importance in their careers. Among the special features on the Criterion disc is an extended documentary on the making of Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and on it, Banderas, Abril, León, and Rossy de Palma, among others, all speak glowingly of Almodóvar and his impact. The features also include a conversation between Almodóvar and Banderas, delightful footage from the film’s 1990 premiere party in Madrid, and an interview with Sony Pictures Classics copresident Michael Barker. The accompanying booklet features a piece about the film by Almodóvar, a conversation between Kent Jones and Wes Anderson, and an interview with Almodóvar.
With a pleasant late ’80s flair — in clothes, set design, and character accessories — Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is an excellent middle period Almodóvar feature, emblematic of so much of what brought him to international prominence: the dark comedy, the campy melodrama, the sexuality, the quirkiness. Save for the final shot though, it hasn’t quite attained the subtle emotional quality that some of his more recent films achieve (Volver, Broken Embraces). At this point in his career, Almodóvar had also not yet fully developed the “new humanism,” as Barker puts it, that marked later films like Talk to Her and All About My Mother. The film does maintain, however, the crucial liberal minded lack of judgment that makes much of Almodóvar’s work so personable.
In any event, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is a testament to the frequently strange path love takes to bring its companions together, and though more orthodox methods are suggested, it is utterly fantastic to watch this couple connect by whatever means necessary.