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Some Pedro Almodóvar fans felt betrayed in 1988 when the Iberian director hit the international big time with Mujeres en el borde de un ataque de nervios (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown). The Royal Theater in West L.A. had a special showing with several of the Spanish cast in attendance; and the movie, a romantic farce that played like a Doris Day movie on LSD, earned a delightful best Foreign Film Oscar nomination for an extremely talented guíon.
Soon thereafter, another art theater announced a festival of Almodóvar movies, with interesting-sounding titles like Matador and What Have I Done to Deserve This? Savant guesses that many fans wrongly assumed they were going to be more of the same ... only to find out that they had all kinds of extreme content: gore, bizarre sexual relationships, bright colors. Mujeres was something of a departure for Almodóvar, as his earlier pictures had been a lot bolder with taboo subject material, often political in nature. For his immediate follow-up, the always-surprising director progressed to subject matter considered completely Politically Incorrect in the USA ... and received a perplexing NC-17 rating.
Asylum authorities release Ricky (Antonio Banderas), and he proceeds to demonstrate the error of their decision. He beelines it to the set of film director Maximo Espejo (Francisco Rabal), a wheelchair-bound lecher whose current Euro-horror film is about a hideously mutilated, masked muscleman. Ricky's an enamored fan of Marina (Victoria Abril), a porn star recovering from drug addiction by appearing in a 'straight' genre film. Ricky met and bedded her briefly on a previous escape from the loony bin. Convinced he holds the solution to all her problems, Ricky kidnaps Marina, locks her in her apartment and sets out to prove that his love transcends simple fan adoration. His simple formula for romantic success is bondage and tender loving care in equal doses. Naturally, Marina's response is unpredictable.
The Spanish title ¡Átame! does literally mean, "Tie me up!," and many fans of the relatively tame Women on the Verge were shocked to see their values so rudely assaulted here. Almodóvar's take on human relationships is nothing if not original, and the situation is a little less farcical than in his previous hit. But Almodóvar insists on grabbing the bull by the tail and facing the situation, so to speak. In this story, this particular female of the species is a confused, disordered, irresponsible spirit who does indeed need to be tied down long enough to realize that mutual romance is a possibility. Her terror as a captive does indeed turn into something else the more time she shares with Ricky, and after a few days watching him stare at her in puppydog devotion (it is Antonio Banderas, after all), well ... what seemed so ridiculous in William Wyler's embarassing The Collector works here as a of statement about the irrationality of human hearts.
If ¡Átame! has a lesson it's that the American belief that we invented liberated thought and feminine equality is a bunch of hooey. Even more to the point is the fact that in daily reality, relationships can be just about anything, even blatantly traditional: the man dominates, the woman submits. As obnoxious as this seems to progressive feminist activism, it's been the way of the world for so long that Man will have to do a lot more evolving before it goes away entirely. Marina and Ricky are characters, not real people. She's not particularly bright and he's practically a moron (okay, a handsome moron). The film shows their love developing in an outrageous series of oddball comedy moments, some of which need to be thought about to decide whose leg Almodóvar is pulling at any given time. The director adds one of his ersatz commercials to remind us that this is a fantasy. It's a financial planning spot that shows Spaniards lolling away their time making love and otherwise seeking carnal pleasure, while the Germans (represented by a swastika-wearing Deutsch couple!) efficiently save and organize for retirement. After that, you can't go back into the main story thinking Almodóvar wants you to believe he's dead serious about his sex farce.
Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! was stamped with a bewildering NC-17 rating, which had to have happened because our blessed protectors at the MPAA were shocked, shocked at simple things like seeing a woman sit on a toilet, or god forbid, enjoy herself in a bathtub (What did Pleasantville get, a PG-13?) A woman is roughed up and likes it, which the MPAA apparently forgot has long been a standard feature in unenlightened American movies (the musical Carousel, for one) whose messages encourage battered women to take their beatings as a sign of love from the brute men in their lives. When ¡Átame! was new, patrons were verbally irate: not because the film was Politically Incorrect, but that it wasn't sexy enough. NC-17 meant smut and explicit sex in 1990 (does it now?), and about the roughest thing we get here is a cute windup bath toy paddling its way between Victoria Abril's parting legs. There is nudity and sex and profane Spanish dialogue -- none of it gratuitous, all of it either amusing or erotically honest.
The movie is funny, well acted, and bizarre as only an Almodóvar film can be. His style is sort of a hybrid of Luis Buñuel, Mario Bava and Ross Hunter, and a delight for fans seeking something both spicy and opinionated. Loles Leon has a major role (even a musical number), and is delightful. She played the telephone receptionist in Women on the Verge. Rossy de Palma is also back, that woman with the fascinating Picasso face. Francisco Rabal's sleazy film director must be another Almodóvar reference to the Eurohorror films he loves, Jesus Franco or Fulci or somebody - ? The film is bright and cleverly designed -- the art direction and color in these Almodóvar pictures are entertaining just in themselves.
Anchor Bay started with a few odd pickups and some licensed titles from the majors and has now established itself as a DVD company with integrity. The classy handling it has given its Eurohorror releases extends also to its Werner Herzog collection, and hopefully ¡Átame! will be the first of more Almodóvar movies. This disc is attractively mastered in 16:9 and looks better than the theatrical print I saw, with good color and removable subtitles. The trailer is very good (Almodóvar films always seem to have good trailers) but there are no other extras, a disappointment considering the irreplaceable commentaries on the Herzog discs. A good copy of a good movie is enough any day to receive high marks. ¡Átame!? Cómprala!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! rates:
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2001 Glenn Erickson