Review: Law of Desire (La Ley del Deseo, 1987) ★★★★

Redefining gender and reevaluating traditional values are trademarks of Pedro Almodóvar’s sensual, calculated style. Some might see the sexuality of his films as muddled, even contradictory, but it’s quite the opposite. The sexual desire in films such as Law of Desire exists completely outside the heteronormative landscape to which we are accustomed. He embraces a world without boundaries, where bodies are simply attracted to other bodies, free of hang-ups or anxiety. This is not to say that Almodóvar doesn’t work to address these kinds of issues. In fact, one could argue that his films attempt to alleviate sexual anxiety and express desire within a world that is (generally) free of judgment or apprehension. Nothing is out of bounds, and while there are certain characters in his narratives that condemn the sexual freedom, they are often outsiders, completely unwelcome in the world that Almodóvar has created.

Almodóvar reached a seminal point in his career with Law of Desire, solidifying himself as a film auteur and subsequently directing the more widely acclaimed Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown the following year. Law of Desire was the first release of his fledgling production company, El Deseo. The story follows Pablo (Eusebio Poncela), a successful gay film director who is in a complicated relationship with a much younger man, Juan (Miguel Molina), who feels that his love for Pablo is not entirely reciprocated. Pablo shares a special bond with his transsexual sister, Tina (Carmen Maura), who acts as a surrogate mother for Ada (Manuela Velasco), a young girl left in her care by an ex-lover. On the same night that Pablo premieres his new stage play (in which Tina stars), he meets a man named Antonio (Antonio Banderas) and they have a one-night stand. This is Antonio’s first homosexual experience, and he quickly becomes obsessed with Pablo, though Pablo regards their relationship as a mere fling. Pablo’s indifference only intensifies Antonio’s obsession, and the situation soon spirals out of control.

Law of Desire never shies away from addressing sexuality directly, treating the human body (generally male) as something that should be seen and even objectified. To Almodóvar, desire (primarily sexual desire) is what drives human action, for better or worse. The plot is essentially built on Pablo’s insatiable, and often selfish, sexual appetite, and is complicated by Antonio’s obsession and perseverance. We are made to see exactly how sexual encounters come about, the sensations that the characters feel during sex, and then the subsequent after effects.

What should have been a simple one-night stand ends up complicating Pablo’s love life even further (Law of Desire, 1987).

What is most striking about this film (and a few others by Almodóvar) is that gender is never treated as a definable quality. Men are not men, and women are not women, but rather every character simply exists free of categorization. They may define themselves by certain terms, but the narrative never constricts them to one single categorization. This is most evident with Antonio and Tina. Antonio self-defines as a heterosexual male, but he sleeps with Pablo and then becomes completely infatuated with him. Tina is a transsexual woman who acts as a mother and sister. A pair of cynical and oafish police officers question her gender identity, but a doctor reconfirms, with notable incredulity, that she is absolutely a woman. Almodóvar explores similarly blurred gender lines further in his later work, particularly Bad Education (2004) and The Skin I Live In (2011).

The visual style is typical of Almodóvar‘s films, with the interior sets remaining rather simple and bare. There generally aren’t complex set decorations or large, expensive reconstructions. Nonetheless, the colors are always bright, and they often draw your attention to the mise-en-scene, despite the humble décor. In this way, Almodóvar always seems to find a striking balance between simplicity and extravagance.

The film is built on non-traditional relationships work to redefine our ideas concerning gender (Law of Desire, 1987).

Finally, it is important to note that the film does not only reject traditional conceptions of gender, but more generally it reassesses traditional values. Pablo (a gay man), Tina (his sister and a transsexual woman), and Ada (a young girl who harbors a small crush for Pablo) all come together to form a surprisingly believable family unit. In fact, this unit is the most wholesome element of the film’s story. Everything outside of this non-traditional family is portrayed as perverse, corrupted, or simply false: Antonio is obsessive and violent, the police force is inept and abuses its power, and the film industry is shallow and unfulfilling. Almodóvar works to redefine the family unit, and shows that a more progressive form of familial relations is far superior to our existing conceptions, which he dismisses as archaic, and possibly even harmful.

Overall, Law of Desire is an incredibly well made film that begs to be analyzed further. The actors all give fantastic performances, and every scene, no matter how stylized, somehow feels naturalistic and believable. The graphic sexuality on display only works to enhance and validate the free, uninhibited world of Almodóvar’s creation.

Law of Desire is currently available to stream on Hulu.

Or it can be purchased via Amazon.

Rating: ★★★★ out of 5

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