As part of the Almodóvar Collection re-release, this version of Law of Desire comes with an excellent introduction by the academic Jose Arroyo. According to Arroyo, Almodóvar’s fifth film was a breakthrough on a number of different levels: Firstly, this was the first film to be made by Almodóvar’s own production company. Secondly, it was a huge commercial success meaning that Almodóvar was now able to make pretty much any film he wanted to make. Thirdly, Law of Desire was embraced by the Spanish film establishment and used to demonstrate the vibrancy and diversity of Spanish culture following the death of Franco and the return to democracy. This newfound commercial and cultural security meant that Almodóvar was able to move away from the genre melodramas that helped to build his career and begin trying to find a voice of his own. However, while there is no denying Arroyo’s observation that Law of Desire is film that is more personal, more technically ambitious, and significantly different to the films that came before it, the question of whether Law of Desire is actually a better film than either Dark Habits or What Have I Done to Deserve This? is far from having an obvious answer.
The film opens on a defiant note with a young man being encouraged to masturbate by an off-camera voice. Homophobic people often use strangely sexualised imagery when complaining about the presence of overtly gay content in films but it would be hard to disagree with someone claiming that Almodóvar was quite literally rubbing it in our faces. Exquisitely shot and undeniably sexy, the scene concludes with another note of defiance as a credit sequence announces the scene’s nature as part of a film within a film.
The director of this film is Pablo Quintero (Eusebio Poncela), a character said to be inspired by Almodóvar’s own experiences as an openly gay film director who achieved a degree of success and visibility despite the machismo and overt homophobia of the culture that celebrated him. How men who sleep with men present themselves in a homophobic culture is central to the film as Pablo seems to revel in his gay identity only to retreat into privacy the second anyone presents him with a direct question. The challenge of adopting a gay identity also shapes the men in Pablo’s life as the director soon finds himself at the top of a love triangle forcing him to choose between an affectionate but ambivalent Juan (Miguel Molina) and a terrifyingly intense Antonio (Antonio Banderas).
One of the things that distinguishes Law of Desire from some of the earlier Almodóvar films is that while films like Dark Habits and What Have I Done to Deserve This? function very much as ensemble pieces, Law of Desire has a far more conventional and Hollywood-friendly structure involving one major plotline and a secondary plotline that intersects the primary plot in a way that serves to draw out certain themes and ideas. The film’s secondary plot-line is dominated by Pablo’s sister Tina (Carmen Maura). When we first encounter Tina, she is dressed to the nines and batting away accusations that her lack of lover means that she must be a lesbian. However, as the film progresses, we learn that Tina is actually a transwoman and that her reluctance to get involved with any men is a product of childhood trauma resulting from abusive relationships with both her father and a local priest. While Tina’s experiences are obviously quite different to those of a more conventionally straight-acting man, the implication is that Tina is as much a product of Spanish prejudice as Pablo, Antonio, and Juan. They all desire men but have all dealt with that desire in their own different ways.
Another thing that distinguishes The Law of Desire from some of Almodóvar’s earlier films is that while his fifth film does include a strong female character, that character is forced into the background by a gay man. This turns out to be rather unfortunate as while Carmen Maura is superb as the passionate and conflicted Tina, Poncela’s Pablo comes across as little more than a generic creep whose refusal to take responsibility for his own sexual desire results in the death and suffering of those around him. Part of the problem is that while Pablo is said to have been modelled on Almodóvar himself, Almodóvar struggles to imbue him with much substance beyond the kind of helpless passivity required to oil the narrative mechanism of a Hitchcockian thriller
The film’s second and third acts are dominated by Antonio’s attempts to get closer to Pablo by murdering his romantic competition whilst simultaneously trying to conceal his sexual involvement with the film director. The problem is that while the aggression and ambivalence that fuels Antonio’s actions are born of Spain’s conflicted attitudes towards homosexuality, Almodóvar struggles to gain much purchase on the character of Antonio and so winds up treating the film’s primary thematic focus as little more than an excuse for people to behave irrationally and thus move the plot forward. This problem is largely tonal in nature as we see Almodóvar struggling to reconcile the heightened realism of genre cinema with the kind of sensitivity required to do a thorough character study. Weirdly, Almodóvar managed to perform this balancing act when walking the boundaries of comedy and melodrama in his earlier films but Law of Desire feels both too unrealistic to work as a drama and too character-focused to work as a proper thriller. The result is a film that will leave you bored with Pablo and wishing that Almodóvar had decided to build a film around the character of Tina instead.
Despite its thematic problems and simplified structure, Law of Desire is undoubtedly a more technically proficient film as Almodóvar manages to combine clever camera movements and complex set-pieces with his already familiar fondness for well-chosen musical numbers and exquisite design work. This greater technical proficiency gives the entire film an undoubted lift but it simply cannot compensate for the under-written primary character and the much-simplified plot.