‘Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!’: Pornography and Love in the Eye of the Beholder

Almodóvar's shocking, NC-17 film makes us realize that pornography and love are only in the eye of the beholder.

It’s strange to think that the Criterion Collection chose Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! as Pedro Almodóvar’s first entry into their iconic series. Not because it’s a bad film; no Almodóvar film can be accused of that, although Kika isn’t precisely one of his finest moments. Rather, it’s because the film is thought of so little when you think of the Spaniard’s stellar canon.

Where can one begin? First, we have Law of Desire, which announced the arrival of Carmen Maura as his first muse. Then there’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown which was the film that catapulted him towards world fame (making even Madonna a fan of his work), the early ’90s were weird for him, although The Flower of My Secret is most certainly one of his best character studies (not to mention the spiritual mother to his most flawless film to date, 2006’s Volver). Then, of course, there’s the Oscar-winning All About My Mother, the devastating Talk to Her, the already mentioned Volver and its complex, if very underrated follow-up Broken Embraces and… you get the idea.

There are so many films you think of when you think “Almodóvar”; Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is rarely one of them. Perhaps Criterion had trouble getting rights to his more famous work? Perhaps they’re planning to pull a Charlie Chaplin on us and start delivering Almodóvar films on a yearly basis; or, perhaps, they do have a point, and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is in fact worthy of being the very first Almodóvar film in the Criterion Collection.

Let’s examine the facts: the 1990 film stars two of Spain’s brightest stars, Antonio Banderas and Victoria Abril; it is the follow-up to Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown; and its sexual content was so controversial that it forced the puritanical Motion Picture Association of America to implement the NC-17 category, in order to condemn its sexual details without flat out accusing it of being pornography.

Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!‘s cultural value as a piece of where the Western world stood in the ’90’s in indeed important to point out, and would therefore make it qualify as a classic in its own right. And yet the truth is that viewing after viewing, the film reveals itself to be so much more than what you remembered; its value has only increased, and it has come to be perfectly described by that overly ambiguous adjective: underrated.

Set in a world so colorful we are led to imagine might only exist within its protagonist’s head, the film introduces us to mental patient Ricky (Banderas), who upon being released from a clinic decides that the only logical next step to take is to go find the love of his life: former porn star Marina Ozores (Abril), with whom he once shared a casual tryst. Using resources both creepy and fantastical, he finds her; Marina, of course, has no idea of who this mad man might be. Not letting this small detail discourage him, he decides to kidnap and restrain her, to force her to fall in love with him. At that point, it becomes clear that Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is satirical horror film; it forces us to wonder if love isn’t anything other than pure and simple insanity.

Anchored by Banderas’ disturbingly seductive performance—no other director has been able to tap into what makes the actor so great as Almodóvar—the film surprisingly works as both a swoon-worthy romantic comedy and a terrifying film about imprisonment, as we see Ricky’s seduction techniques as either very erotic or bordering on torture. Playing with the concept of Stockholm Syndrome, Almodóvar’s unique take on the romantic comedy often reminds us of the Technicolor extravaganzas starring classic Hollywood stars like Doris Day and Rock Hudson, continuing to perpetuate the notion that what we learn from the movies to be romance, might be nothing more than a pathological condition. Is Ricky really wrong in believing Marina will love him when the movies themselves might have put this idea in him?

The director also makes clever observations on how media is consumed given that, while Marina has left the world of pornography behind, Ricky still sees her as the object of his sexual desire. In a way, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! was preparing us for the puritanical reactions it would spark, as it makes us realize that pornography and love are only in the eye of the beholder.

Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is presented in a stunning new 2K digital restoration, supervised by director Almodóvar and executive producer Agustín Almodóvar, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray. Included in the disc are also an array of special features like an interview with Almodóvar collaborator and Sony Pictures Classics copresident Michael Barker, a 2003 conversation between the director and Banderas, footage from the 1990 premiere and best of all an illuminating documentary about the making of the film in which Abril, Banderas, and Almodóvar himself look back on the film that made them bona fide international sensations.

RATING 8 / 10