Undermarked Oversights: Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!

The mind of Pedro Almodovar has produced some of cinema's most provocatively mischievous pieces of art, touching on themes of unobtainable carnal desire and gender identity while pushing the boundaries of audience sensibility. Even at his most challenging, he does so in a way that's far from abrasive, where vibrant color palettes and open, frank body language frequently make exploring the nuance of his ideas an utter delight. At the time when Almodovar originally released Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, however, that liveliness mattered little when it came to getting lassoed by the MPAA, deeming its provocative content -- the capture and binding of an ex-porn starlet until she falls in love with her mentally-unstable captor -- worthy of the dreaded "X" rating typically reserved for pornographic material. It's a shame, too, because the film's evocative design transcends the wacky concept's exploitative and smutty artifice, rarely without some engaging underlying purpose or figurative suggestion about the dynamics of courtship, seeking family, and the warped nature of Stockholm Syndrome.

That's not to say Almodovar doesn't intend on rousing his audience with Tie Me Up!, of course, since that's inherent in the pursuits of his twenty-something former (?) psychotic. Ricky, played with casual charisma by Antonio Banderas, has recently been released from his mental institution by court mandate, out into a world where he has nobody and nothing but a bit of cash, his wits, and his good looks. He's not interested in a cavalier life of freedom, though: the first thing on his mind is locating a specific woman and making her his wife. That woman happens to be an former porn actress and drug addict, Marina (Victoria Abril) who's turned her life and acting career around, someone whom Ricky previously shared a night with during one of his brief stints outside the institution. When traditional methods of getting her attention fail, Ricky resorts to more drastic measures, kidnapping her within her own apartment and tying her down on the bed. His objective? Keep her bound, disconnected from work and family, until she falls in love with him.

Almodovar's vibrant style, both the visuals and his presentation of his characters, brightens what's ultimately a rather dark scenario in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!. Cutting into the austerity that could come of Ricky's mental instability and Marina's self-destructive former life of drugs and porn, he uses the film's first twenty minutes to introduce the nuance of these characters against his flair for vivid hyperrealism, dressed in bold yet pragmatic colors. Instead of an outright lunatic and thief, Ricky's revealed to be this charming ward of the state whose prolonged institutionalization may or may not have been justified, despite his inclination towards thievery. Marina, on the other hand, earns sympathy as she attempts to break from her less-savory life, taking a role in a B-grade horror spoof and fighting off the male gaze -- specifically from her director, Maximo (Francisco Rabal) -- and scornful eye of journalists. Both desperately need some form of stability after turbulent periods in their lives, creating a cautious yet optimistic atmosphere as Ricky's roguishness brings him closer to Marina. That is, until violence and confinement put an end to some of the speculation about his sanity.

Clever writing keeps Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! a step ahead of expectations about where the plot's headed, filling in the gaps of doubtfulness about Marina's capture with self-aware subversion of genre conventions. From suspicion about her disappearance to the whereabouts of spare keys to her apartment, Almodovar takes the scenario seriously enough to retain the harrowing nature of a woman being bound and held hostage, yet not seriously enough to detract from flickers of humor and the unhinged romantics of Ricky's intentions. There's playfulness in the sequences involving how Ricky obtains the tools needed to deceive and restrain the object of his affection, from wigs and handcuffs to comfortable rope and less-abrasive tape, that relishes its own idiosyncratic sensibility while tightroping the line between comedy and thriller. That attitude plants the seeds for the organic development of capture-bonding, the film's central conceit, driven by a sneaky juxtaposition of Ricky's twisted grasp on good intentions with Marina's horrified eyes and discomforted squirms in her restraints.

Almodovar's fondness for light arty surrealism occasionally pulls Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! into far-fetched territory -- especially the ways in which Ricky almost gets found out -- yet the chemistry between Antonio Banderas and Victoria Abril brings those moments back down to some semblance of reality. Or, maybe their rapport is so engaging and vivacious from start to finish that it doesn't really matter, where the melodramatic fluctuations of their tenuously developing relationship relishes the progression towards Marina's flip in perception. Much of Victora Abril's performance comes from her eyes and her body language, whether she's tied up or not; her tension, instead of disappearing, slowly changes in tone as she becomes more aware of Ricky's intentions and limitations. While captivating, she's ultimately the muse behind Ricky's mania and scheming, brought to life with a deceivingly complex performance from Antonio Banderas that nails his menacing dedication and, ultimately, the likable virtues buried underneath.

Again, though, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is built on a situation whose immensity shouldn't be just shrugged off, and Almodovar knows it. Ricky's perseverance and Marina's opposition actively draw some exaggerated allegorical parallels to the dynamics of opposite-sex courtship, while commenting on the compulsive need for stability and family. The twists and turns of the hostage situation pull those elements together into a peculiar romantic fable that rouses some thought about the way relationships develop -- the hoops jumped through to gain attention, the nature of rejection and acceptance, the emotional bondage and metaphorical bruises -- within the space of Almodovar's elevated reality. While its scenes of provocation and passion may earn its (re-rated) NC-17 label along the way, they also muster a unique grasp on this unsavory beast of a young man displaying genuine fondness for a weatherworn beauty beyond his common, inexperienced means. Can Ricky's actions be justified? No, and Almodovar doesn't try to do that, but Tie Me Up! does unjudgingly play with the idea of whether Marina would've completely broken from her own personal restraints without getting tied up with her psychopath.

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