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BIG SHOT: Law of Desire

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Law of Desire is the first film director Pedro Almodar made under his production company El Deseo, allowing him to have full artistic control over the production. It shows. From the very beginning the film eschews any subtlety, decency, or political correctness. The result is a comedy verging on melodrama that lays the foundation for so much of his work to follow. Many of his subsequent films (most explicitly Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, High Heels, and Bad Education ) all seem to germinate from the plots, characters, and themes developed here.

Love triangles play a huge role in Almodóvar’s filmmaking. His leading women consistently cope with their unwavering dedication to their philandering husbands. His men waffle from man to man to woman to man. Law of Desire centers around a pair of siblings, Pablo (Eusebio Poncela) and Tina Quintero (Carmen Maura). Pablo, a gay film director popular in the club scene, is eternally in the crux of a love triangle as a result of his undying devotion to himself that is ultimately the root of his downfall. Although he would claim he is dedicated to the point of obsession to a young man named Juan (Miguel Molina) who doesn’t quite return his love, he more obsessed with finding someone to love him as much as he does himself. When he does find that person in Antonio (Antonio Banderas), another young man, a fan of his work, it’s not as satisfying as he once imagined it would be. Pablo’s sister Tina (who was once his brother but underwent a sex change long ago) is on the losing end of her own love triangle when her girlfriend runs off to Tokyo to chase a man and she is left caring for the tweenaged daughter. Her status as a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown is further solidified when Pablo casts her as the lead in his stage production of Cocteau’s Le Voix Humaine. She is destined, it seems, to be a scorned woman.

Although this is considered to be Almodóvar’s first explicitly gay film, the characters’ sexualities are treated with the utmost nonchalance. Most of the action centers around the queer club scene where flamboyance is the norm. The inhabitants of this film are no longer combating adversity, bravely coming out of the closet, or generally defining and defending their sexual behavior. They have found an accepting community. In fact, early on, when Tina endures some heckling from Pablo’s ‘fans’ regarding her latest tryst – with another woman – the hecklers are dismissed almost immediately, setting a precedent for the rest of the film. Leave her alone; what she does in bed is her business.

Instead, it seems everyone is self-obsessed. Pablo is in love with Juan, but when Juan goes out of town and his love letters are unsatisfactory, Pablo goes so far as to write one himself that he asks Pablo to sign and send back. It is this boundless narcissism that causes all the problems. Because when Juan complies and sends the letter back to Pablo, people keep finding it around his house. The love letter he wrote to himself is so pure and romantic, it inspires insane jealousy from everyone in his life. What seems, on paper to be the proof of Juan’s pure dedication is actually Pablo’s own to himself. When Antonio comes on the scene, young, naive, and determined to win out over the letter.

It is only when Antonio almost loses Pablo to Juan forever that these dalliances cross a line and erupt into violence uncontainable within the confines of their social circle. Outsiders come charging in, ostensibly to help clean up the murder and the mess, represented by two inept police officers (played by a father and son). These very straight men are ignorant and bigoted, highlighting just how insulated Pablo’s life was before it spiraled out of his control. While the older one, ready to retire, happy, lazy, corrupt, is accepting of the ‘freaks’ he is investigating, he also objectifies and fetishizes them; he has a particular soft spot for Tina who as a transsexual is more woman than other women to him. The younger officer, ambitious, inexperienced, and on the straight and narrow, is just disgusted by Tina, Pablo and the rest. Their overt sexuality, insane (amazing!) graphic polyester button downs and skin-tight neon spandex miniskirts put him on edge. Ultimately Pablo steps up to take responsibility and control. While it’s a relief that the heteronormative douchebags remain stuck in their ineptness, never to attain any triumph over their narrow-mindedness, nobody else changes very much either. The film’s tragic end is a result of the characters’ determination never to change.

While Law of Desire is interesting in its casual yet explicit portrayal of gay sex, notable for young Antonio Banderas’ pouty lips and crazy eyes, and is a key entry into Almodóvar’s canon (particularly because Pablo’s trajectory so resembles Almodóvar’s own), it is ultimately not that memorable. The histrionics that later develop into the exciting and funny Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown in this case quickly become tedious and overdone. And Tina, the most alluring character in the film, is unfortunately often relegated to the sidelines as Antonio’s obsession with Pedro takes center stage, despite the repetitive nature of that plot line. Within this film the seeds of great ideas are planted, but it is only in later movies that they are able to reach their full potential.