Monday, August 09, 2010


Once upon a time, Pedro Almodovar was an enfant terrible. His early films were exercises in provocation and stylistic excess. Sometimes, they were pretty hard to put up with. A case in point is Matador, from 1986, which starts with a man masturbating to the violence in Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace, then proceeds to tell a story of psychos in love. Diego has a problem: forcibly retired from the bullring after being gored by a bull, he still hungers for the kill. He satisfies this urge by murdering women after he's had sex with them. One of his students, Angel, has been driven mad by both crippling vertigo and his overly religious mother. After attempting to rape Eva, Diego's girlfriend, he claims responsibility fo the murders. Maria, the lawyer who takes Angel's case, has similar appetites as Diego, only her taste is for murdering matadors after having sex with them. Soon, Diego and Maria are circling each other in a deadly mutual attraction.

Early in his career, Almodovar took a LOT of heat for his cavalier approach to rape imagery, and this film is one of the ones that fuels that criticism. Angel's attempted rape in this movie is kinda sorta played for laughs. The character further faints at the sight of blood and is ridiculed by his victim for premature ejaculation. Still, this is all of a piece with this movie, in which every character has some kind of destructive sexual peccadillo. I think it's more destructive to the movie that it occasionally seems to pull elements out of its ass. For example: Late in the movie, Angel is shown to be psychic, which is how he knows the details of Diego's crimes. When this started to play out, all I could think was: "Wrote yourselves into a corner, did you?"

Still and all, Almodovar always mounts attractive films, whether through the design elements or through his choice of actors. You get both here, although the design of the film is very much of its time. Very 1980s. This movie is very much in love Antonio Banderas, who seems impossibly young (he was 26 at the time), but it's Asumpta Serna who walks away with the movie as the predatory Maria. The nominal lead, Nacho Martinez, kind of gets overwhelmed by this, but Almodovar has never had a lot of interest in middle-aged straight guys, so this might be inevitable.

Almodovar is also totally in love with movies, and like many of his other movies, this one is appointed with cinematic points of reference. I mentioned Bava already. There's also the scene where Diego first pursues Maria: they end up in a movie theater that's showing the end of Duel in the Sun, an equally deranged portrait of sexual obsession that foreshadows the end of this movie.

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