(Pedro Almodovar, Spain, 1990)
One of Almodovar's early joints in garish color and sexy-cool swagger. It's taken me some time to warm up to his films, but I think I get them now: they are about pleasure. Well, sort of; it's more that pleasure is the operating principle by which Almodovar deals with his subject (which is often, but not limited to, pleasure.) The trick that Almodovar pulls off, with impressive consistency, is being able to have his cake and eat it too, aesthetically (and what better metaphor for his utterly confectious creations?) He touches upon (and with some later, more serious efforts, like All About My Mother, really digs into) sorrow, loss, and truly exquisite existential pain, but does so with such élan, with such effortless charm, that you can't help but marvel at the wonders of aesthetic transfiguration. It's the human condition with a wink and a hand-job.
Átame!, like so many of Almodovar's films, operates on the razor edge of ridiculousness. It starts off seeming haphazard, even reckless, but by the end, if you're paying attention, you realize that this was all part of the trick. Pedro excels at teasing both your morals and your libido - he dares you to take him too seriously, and then provides enough laughs and titillation and warmth that you'll forgive him for practically anything. All of which could prompt the more skeptical audience member, after the buzz of the film has worn off, to cynicism. Could it be that this decadent Spaniard is playing on our pleasure centers a little too effectively? Is he a mere manipulator, a huckster, no better than one of our domestic weepie-makers? Beneath the charmingly fabulous decor and top-notch performances, is he just giving us fancy, Euro-flavored fluff?
Plenty have accused him of just that: for all of his success as a true international art-house sensation, there have always been a healthy contingent of naysayers who don't take kindly to the sumptuous treats that Almodovar is able to dream up. But at least in this case, I found myself helpless under the spell of his movie. Whether this is because I like to have my sense of taste flattered is, I suppose, beyond my ken, but I'm willing to lay out a straightforward, if simple defense. Átame! succeeds as Art because it is, finally, palpably free. That is to say, it manages to overcome its own inborn constraints. Even though the film is dangerously close to being overdetermined, it is liberated by its moments of helpless imaginative fancy. Almodovar, even in this relatively early film, is already expert at allowing the film to take its own shape; just when you think you know where it's going, it goes somewhere else. Miranda actually does fall in love with her kidnapper, and it does feel both inevitable and completely surprising (not to mention a little deliberately incorrect, politically). And that's not the end of the film's surprises. For all of the careful construction of the premise, as the story gets rolling, it dispenses with the obvious questions and instead follows its own weird & kinky road map. Like any great seducer, Almodovar manages to make giving in seem both naughty and perfectly natural. We should be grateful he's so eager to woo us.