One year after Matador, Pedro Almodovar’s Law of Desire codified the techniques that would define Almodovar’s works for years. The first film made under Almodovar’s El Deseo production company, Law of Desire is one of Almodovar’s few explicitly queer films made in the time of AIDS. Depending on how you squint, this film is either a daring fantasy that never mentions the disease, an irresponsible film that celebrates sexuality, or a metaphor for HIV itself. There’s no explicit mention of the disease, but there is a hell of a lot of sex and death.
Porn director Pablo (Eusebio Poncela) is in love with Juan (Michael Molina), a conflicted, possibly closeted, gay boy who won’t actually have sex with Pablo. Instead of fucking, they drink and do Ambien until they pass out naked in each other’s arms. That is, until Pablo leaves the big city for his rural hometown, leaving Pablo on his own to succumb to the insistent wiles of the sexily psychotic rich boy Antonio (Antonio Bandaras). Despite there being 10,000 red flags within their first five minutes of meeting, Pablo is thinking with his dick and takes Antonio home with him to bone.
Mind you, Pablo is also crazy. When he receives a sexy postcard from Juan, he types out the letter that Juan should have sent him, and sends it to Juan to sign and send back so Pablo can have his fantasy relationship. This sort of obsessive controlling mindset makes Pablo think he can control Antonio, who is crazy and privileged enough to think he can get away with controlling everything. Their torrid week together extends past the point of no return, turning into a sickness between the two.
Re-rated NC-17 in 2005, Law of Desire confronts queer sexuality head on. In the opening porn short, an offscreen commanding voice tells a young strapping man to strip, admire himself in a mirror, and then pleasure himself. The joke is that this short is being redubbed, moans and all, by older men who bear no semblance to the man on screen. It’s an Almodovarian hall of mirrors that plays out through shirts, boyfriends and family members.
All of these characters have that rich Almodovarian off-screen life that his movies are famed for. Unlike the earlier Matador, Almodovar gives these characters a history, a family, and social connections beyond the core story. Pablo, being an older man, is most connected to his sister and her family. Juan and Antonio are younger and more attached to their mother. Both Juan and Antonio are products of their home life, whether it is a conservative rural life or an overprotective life of privilege. By allowing the characters to breathe, Law of Desire cements Pedro’s reputation as a consummate storyteller, obsessed with trashy torrid subject matter and telenovela continuity.
But, what about that AIDS reference I hinted at earlier? On one side, the fear of sex is key to the gay experience in the late 80s. In other documentaries, those directors posited that the BDSM community inadvertently got a bigger boost because much of that sex was non-penetrative, and yet it simulated a sexual human connection. Here, Juan is not having sex with Pablo…though it could be from being conflicted about his sexuality, about his conservative background, or about the HIV that’s going around. Antonio, on the other hand, is a killer (who may or may not be on the DL) willing to have copious amounts of unprotected sex with Pablo (if not other men).
The complications and moral ambiguity within Law of Desire allow for multiple readings, but they also combine for being a portrait of human sexuality. There is little judgment here beyond the age-old adage “Don’t give it up to crazy people.” In essence, this is what we come to Almodovar films for, well told yarns filled with topical discussion starters interesting well-rounded characters. It’s fun to watch a director bloom.