Spain’s Hell-Raising Pedro Almodóvar has fashioned a passionate and boldly hilarious follow-up to his 1988 smash, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. The writer-director again uses sex and violence to grab our attention and then speaks directly to the heart.
This film – his eighth – offers a boy-meets-girl story, Almodóvar style. Ricki (Antonio Banderas) is an orphan, a newly released mental patient with a tenacious desire to settle down and start a family. Marina (Victoria Abril) is an actress, a former porn star and junkie trying to go straight. Marina and Ricki had slept together once on one of his escapes from the loony bin the year before. Now free, Ricki breaks into Marina’s apartment, punches her in the jaw, ties her to a bed and tapes her mouth. “I had to kidnap you so you’d know me,” he says.
Marina fiercely resists. She can do without men. Before Ricki’s arrival, she had seemed quite content in her tub, with a toy scuba diver buzzing between her legs. To avoid slipping back to drugs and oblivion, she looks for emotional support to her sister Lola, exuberantly acted by Loles Leon, and their mother, played by Almodóvar’s own madre.
With the help of a faultless cast – and striking camera work by Jose Luis Alcaine – Almodóvar reveals the fragility of these seemingly hardened characters. Ricki never attempts rape (he wants love); he buys nonabrasive tape to protect Marina’s skin and cries when she insults him. When Ricki goes out to steal dope to ease the pain in Marina’s jaw, he is brutally kicked and beaten. Later Marina ministers to his wounds; it is she who initiates sex, being careful not to touch his sore spots. Their lovemaking is the gentlest and most sensual in any Almodóvar film. Given a chance to escape, Marina instead tells Ricki, “Tie me up.”
For Almodóvar, this willing bondage is both a celebration and a wicked sendup of marriage. Ricki accepts Marina’s offer to live with her family and let Lola find him a job. But all is not ideal. Driving home, Ricki and Lola sing along with a song on the radio that exalts survival against the odds. But only Marina seems to grasp the song’s meaning or see the pitfalls on the road ahead. Her divided feelings are at the heart of Almodóvar’s disturbing and invigorating film, another masterwork from Spain’s most explosive talent.