In 1988, after years of making sexually adventurous provocations that didn’t travel very far beyond Spain, Pedro Almodóvar scored a major international hit with his hyperactive farce Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown. It was the perfect time for him to play it safe, capitalizing on his newfound success by heading even further toward the mainstream. Instead, he followed Women On The Verge with Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, a twisted romantic comedy in which the meet-cute sees the guy deliberately punch the girl in the face hard enough to knock her unconscious. Audiences eager to see more wacky shenanigans, perhaps involving consensual bondage, were treated to a relatively subdued and rather disturbing tale about a woman who slowly falls in love with her abductor, seemingly against her will. What’s more, the MPAA saddled the film with an X rating (NC-17 didn’t exist yet), though this was primarily due to a silly, innocuous bathtub scene that dares to acknowledge the existence of vaginas and female masturbation.
In truth, Almodóvar had been operating in this mode all along—it was Women On The Verge that was atypically anodyne. Still, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! remains one of his ickier films, which makes its selection as the first Almodóvar picture to join the Criterion collection a bit curious. There’s no getting around the troubling aspects of the story, in which a former psych-ward inmate named Ricky (Antonio Banderas, who was an Almodóvar discovery) breaks into the apartment of a former porn star turned legit actress, Marina (Victoria Abril), and keeps her tied up while he waits for her to requite his love. Feminists were justifiably appalled by the way Almodóvar ultimately condones Ricky’s behavior, suggesting that it’s okay to brutalize and subjugate a woman so long as one is allegedly motivated by sincere passion. (Ricky refrains from raping Marina, which would apparently violate his weird ethical code.) It’s a more extreme version of the classic Onion story “Romantic-Comedy Behavior Gets Real-Life Man Arrested,” reinforcing the dangerous notion that the surest way to a woman’s heart involves absolutely refusing to take no for an answer.
What keeps Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! from being irredeemably offensive are Almodóvar’s efforts, however vague and tentative, to undermine his own thesis. For one thing, Banderas’ performance straddles the line between charming and creepy, continually shifting back and forth rather than striving to create a character arc that moves decisively in one direction (from creepy toward charming). For another, Marina knows perfectly well that her feelings for Ricky—inspired initially by compassion, when he returns to the apartment bloody and battered after having the shit kicked out of him by the friends of a drug dealer (Rossy De Palma) he’d ripped off—are deeply unhealthy. She wavers repeatedly, even asking to be tied up at one point for fear that she’ll come to her senses and flee. And the movie’s final scene is a subtly unsettling variation on that of The Graduate, with Marina, having voluntarily sought Ricky out and resumed their love affair, staring blankly ahead while he and her sister (Loles León) happily sing along with a bouncy pop song (which is pointedly called “Resistiré,” or “I Will Resist”). The future looks decidedly uncertain.
Criterion’s accompanying booklet includes a conversation between Wes Anderson and critic Kent Jones in which they discuss, among other things, the more controversial aspects of Almodóvar’s filmography. “There are many people in Almodóvar movies who get raped,” Anderson notes, “and there’s rarely anybody who’s that upset about it.” “Maybe that’s because you often can’t really say, within the world of Almodóvar’s movies, whether it’s a rape or not,” Jones replies. With all due respect to Jones, who’s usually remarkably perceptive and insightful, this is patent bullshit. Creating a heavily stylized “world” does not magically alter the nature of consent. Rape is rape. What really matters is whether abhorrent behavior is being actively celebrated. I’m So Excited!, Almodóvar’s most recent film, includes a truly repugnant scene in which a woman has sex with an unconscious man, which mysteriously bothered few critics. (It’s hard to imagine anyone not being repelled were the genders reversed—but, hey, guys always want to have sex, right? He’d probably be happy if he woke up and found her riding him!) In that case, Almodóvar, too, seemed blithely unaware that there was anything wrong with what he was depicting. Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, by contrast, questions its fairy-tale philosophy, and that makes a big difference.