Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!
One of the first films to receive an NC-17 rating, Pedro Almodóvar’s 1990 film Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is the story of a man, Ricky (Antonio Banderas), recently released from a mental hospital and obsessed with Marina (Victoria Abril), a woman he had a one-night stand with before being hospitalized. Ricky kidnaps Marina in an effort to make her fall in love with him. Marina’s past as a junkie and ex-porn star make her the sexualized victim to Ricky’s oppressor.
However, Ricky’s plan inexplicably works and Marina begins to develop some kind of romantic feeling towards him to the point that she asks him to leave her tied up so that she won’t try to escape. Throughout the film Marina complains of a toothache and Ricky’s attempt to ease her pain results in his trying to buy heroin and getting beaten instead. The scene in which he returns bloody and hurt so moves Marina that she tends to his wounds. Objectified by Ricky as a prize he is entitled to, Marina’s eventual surrendering to her situation is an unbelievable moment of suspended disbelief.
The inclusion of the equally obsessed porn director adds another layer to Marina’s objectification. His single-minded pursuit of Marina reinforces Ricky’s feelings and makes for an even more problematic premise in that again, she is something to be acquired. Once more, Almodóvar frames his story as an unconventional romance with a large amount of the ridiculous to set the tone. Regardless of Almodóvar’s light approach to the subject matter, Marina’s complicit agreement in her own imprisonment leaves the viewer uncomfortable and offers further evidence to Almodóvar’s critics of his misogynistic tendencies.
In addition to Almodóvar’s comic approach to the story, his romanticizing of a woman physically intimidated and imprisoned by a delusional man makes for an unnerving and premise. At one point, as he is tying her to a bed, Ricky asks that she think of someone other than herself for once. Almodóvar’s insistence on distorting the roles and relationship played by victim and captor is his attempt at creating a different kind of love story. In fact, while Marina eventually escapes with the help of her sister, she is reunited with Ricky at the end in a romantic coda to the film. While other independent and mainstream films have focused on dysfunctional and unhealthy relationships, Almodóvar’s effort to somewhat idealize the relationship in his film adds further weight to the arguments made by many feminist and women’s groups at the time. Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! retains many of the standard Almodóvar filmic choices, such as outrageous characters and situations, explicit explorations of sexuality, and a dark comic sensibility. However, the subject matter does not lend itself as easily to these qualities and in turn, the film does not hold up against many of Almodóvar’s other films.
“Cosas de mujeres [Women’s troubles],” whispers Penélope Cruz’s Raimunda by way of explanation to an inquisitive acquaintance who’s just spotted blood on her neck. In fact, our enterprising heroine has been up to a little light body disposal in the kitchen… Following the intriguing but sour and muddled Bad Education, Almodóvar was back on peak form with this delicious, witty and moving melodrama. Famously, the film marked a series of “returns” for the director: a return to his home turf of La Mancha (presented here as a place where persistent winds drive the inhabitants to madness), and his first collaboration with Carmen Maura in 18 years, following their post-Women on the Verge rupture.
At times, in fact, Volver feels like a compendium of earlier Almodóvar movies. There’s some What Have I Done to Deserve This?! (the unregrettable—and unpunished—dispatching of the abusive machista husband) and a resulting mother-daughter murder scenario that evokes High Heels. The return-to-the-pueblo scenes are reminiscent of those in The Flower of My Secret, while a trash-TV lampoon recalls Kika. In addition, the film’s emphasis upon a supportive female community evokes All About My Mother. Casting his intertextual net as widely as ever, Almodóvar also incorporates nods to Italian neo-realism (including a late excerpt from Visconti’s Bellisima), a dash of Hitchcock, a little Mildred Pierce, and a glorious tango lament mid-way through the film.
That Volver feels as fresh and vibrant as it does is a testament to Almodóvar’s unique vision and his ability to build on and transcend his diverse cultural influences. Along with some effective supernatural twists and well-handled forays into the uncanny, he’s helped in no small part by superb supporting work from Maura as the ghostly matriarch, Lola Dueñas as Raimunda’s sister, Yohana Cobo as her daughter, and Blanca Portillo as a neighbor, plus a cherishable cameo from veteran Chus Lampreave.
Ultimately, though, it’s Penélope Cruz’s stunning performance that anchors this movie. Following a string of lacklustre appearances in mediocre American films, the actress reinvigorated her career with this indelible characterisation. Dragging a shopping trolley through the streets and kitted out with a fake butt (all the better to evoke the curvaceous Anna Magnani), Cruz’s Raimunda is a quintessential Almodóvar heroine, a glamorous yet down-to-earth multi-tasker who’s considering the possibilities of a new financial venture even as she disposes of her husband’s corpse. She’s a woman who’s been badly treated in the past but who’s making her present with inventive, improvisatory aplomb. It’s a tough, funny, graceful, moving and utterly radiant performance, the crowning glory of one of Almodóvar’s warmest works. “Cosas de mujeres”? Indeed.