Law Of Desire
(La Ley Del Deseo)

Sony Pictures Classics,

Pedro Almodovar

Eusebio Poncela,
Carmen Maura,
Antonio Banderas,
Miguel Molina,
Fernando Guillen,
Manuela Velasco,
Nacho Martinez,
Bibi Andersen

Rated NC-17, 102 minutes

Last Tango In Madrid
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, November 2009

One of the greatest crimes against cinema has just been corrected. Pedro Almodovar's early catalogue of films, prior to 1988's Women On the Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown, is finally making its way onto DVD in The United States. Amongst the titles is what many consider to be the Spanish director's breakthrough film, 1987's Law Of Desire ((La Ley Del Deseo).

Law Of Desire is one of the landmarks of queer cinema. This comic thriller concerns a love triangle between three gay men and a one night stand that leads to terrible consequences. Pablo Quintero (Eusebio Poncela) is a film and stage director. He is a man with no control over his penis, enjoying fast men and lots of drugs. The two most important people in his life are Juan (Miguel Molina), an actor in his latest film, and his transsexual sister, Tina (Almodovar muse Carmen Maura). Tina used to be a boy and hates men for reasons which will be revealed later.
Tina looks after her young niece, Ada (Manuela Velasco) and has become her surrogate mother. Pablo gives the lead role in his latest stage production to his grateful sister and Ada happily proclaims that her prayers have been answered. The young girl prays daily to a large shrine that occupies a corner of their living room. The kitschy altar features equal parts religious and Hollywood icons, Marilyn Monroe and the Virgin Mary competing amidst the plentiful candles and flowers.

Pablo is unhappy because Juan has gone home to his family for the summer, leaving much unsaid between them. When Juan sends Pablo a short postcard, Pablo types him a love letter - which he asks his young lover to sign and send back to him as if he had written it himself. He is a narcissist of the first order. It's not as if Pablo's bed is ever empty... and another young man is about to enter his life.

Antonio Benitez (Antonio Banderas) is a dashingly handsome, and crazy, young man who has been seen stalking Pablo during the film's opening scenes. The visual cues in their first meeting are splendidly suggestive; Antonio is shooting a rifle in an arcade and Pablo, trying to walk by, pushes down the long, phallic gun so that he can pass. Antonio chases after Pablo, the men exchange a few words and return to the director's apartment.
Once they are alone, Antonio wastes no time and kisses Pablo with clumsy, and violent, ferociously. Pablo reacts to this comical seduction by saying, "You don't kiss like you were unblocking the sink.!" Antonio asks the director to show him how and within seconds they are in bed together. Antonio is a virgin but he's also a fast learner. The sex is hot and also very funny. The next morning, Antonio finds a letter from Juan (the one that Pablo wrote and asked his young lover to sign and send back to him) and flies into a jealous rage. He leaves a note that states, "If I was 16 instead of 20, I would report you as a child molester," and storms out.
He returns the next day and, even though he seems a bit nuts, Pablo is unable to resist his awkward, but persistent, charms. (We are talking about Antonio Banderas in his twenties, after all.) Antonio thinks that Pablo loves him and refuses to allow any other possibility to enter the reality that he has created for himself. Realizing that his beloved's heart belongs to another, Antonio travels to the seaside resort where Juan is working with his family, and kills him.
Law of Desire, coincidentally, came out the same year that Fatal Attraction did and those who need to categorize their movies can view this as a gay variation on that same theme - except that in this case the femme fatale is a smoldering Latin hunk. Law of Desire is a sensual and comic thriller that mixes Hitchcock and soap operas into a very enjoyable romp.
The second half turns into a cat and mouse escapade between Pablo and his murderous boytoy with his sister caught in the middle. It also features a pair of idiotic (and homophobic) cops hellbent on proving that Pablo killed Juan. There are many visual nods to Hitchcock and, like so many of Sir Alfred's killers, Antonio lives with a doting and suffocating mother. Amidst the madness, the film also knows when to slow down long enough to let the audience take a deep breath. There is a beautiful scene between the siblings in which Tina confesses to her brother - who is suffering from a temporary amnesia following an automobile accident - the real reasons behind her gender reassignment surgery and what transpired between her and their estranged father.
Law Of Desire tackles a lot of serious themes. It can be quite dramatic while handling its occasional histrionics with tongue planted firmly in cheek. There are so many funny images scattered throughout the film. Who can forget watching Antonio, in his underwear, setting fire to an incriminating shirt over a toilet? Also consider the scene where the sexually repressed Tina is so hot that she asks a streetcleaner to hose her down - a long phallic stream of water blasts her from across the street as she rubs herself all over while her tight dress is plastered to her skin. Tina's role in Pablo's play involves a scene in which she attacks a bedroom with an axe while the young Ada, dressed in her Communion gown, glides across the stage, lip synching a seductive ballad. The connection between sexual attraction and death are made explicit when Antonio pushes Juan off a cliff as a phallic lighthouse looms in the background.
Is the film over the top? Yes, and gloriously so. Almodovar has a talent for directing lurid melodrama without making it ludicrous. This talent would make him a major player on the international stage and he would enjoy worldwide success a year later with Women On the Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown along with his first Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film; an award he would finally claim with 1999's All About My Mother.

Law of Desire broke a lot of ground. None of Almodovar's gay characters are wrestling with coming out issues or the closet, a rarity for films from the 80s. Modern gay audiences are accustomed to seeing explicit sex between men in the movies (except, of course, in most major studio releases) and that is why I take such pains to remind readers how gutsy Law of Desire was in its day. To illustrate how European films always blazed such trails years before their American counterparts, look no further than the timid depiction of sex in Philadelphia six years later. Having played gay certainly didn't hurt Antonio Banderas when his career crossed over to Hollywood and this should be a lesson to young actors who still fear being typecast.

This is a terrific film, beautifully acted and filmed. It was brave for its day, sexy and smart, and lots of fun. You can't go wrong with this one.


More on Pedro Almodovar
Bad Education

Antonio Banderas also appears in:
Interview With The Vampire