Home Movies by Charles Taylor: Melodrama queen

Sex, violence, passion and death come to a raging boil in Almodovar's paean to romantic kitsch.

By Charles Taylor
Published July 15, 1998 5:46PM (EDT)

Pedro Almodóvar is a salacious romantic who's both ironic and unabashedly
emotional. At his best, he has a keen eye for how the conventions and
clichés of movies color our expectations of the real world as well
as our fantasies. Consciously going beyond the bounds of respectability,
Almodóvar knows that movies are never more sensual or alive than when they
defy those limits and venture into the forbidden.

He's never gone further than he did in 1986's "Matador." This voluptuous
mixture of black humor and subterranean sexuality starts out at an extreme
pitch and gets deeper into the characters' obsessions as the movie
proceeds. Nevertheless, the larger-than-life passions of the killer/lovers
Diego and Maria should be recognizable to anyone who loves the movies.
"Matador" doesn't have the emotional depth of "Law of Desire" (Almodóvar's
best picture) or the farcical perfection of "Women on the Verge of a
Nervous Breakdown," but it's a consistently audacious fantasy of sex and
violence set in a modern-day Madrid where everyone is ready to surrender to
his or her particular passions.

The opening is shockingly funny (or maybe shocking and then funny): A man
sits in front of his TV masturbating to a montage of repulsive
slasher-movie images playing on his VCR. The man is Diego (Nacho Martinez),
a matador unable to practice his craft after being badly gored. He's tried
to content himself with teaching bullfighting to a group of eager young
students, but it doesn't equal the excitement he felt in the
ring. For Diego, death has become the ultimate aphrodisiac. "To stop
killing is to stop living," he says. All of Diego's pronouncements are
taken in by his student Angel (Antonio Banderas), who wants to learn
bullfighting so he can die a more exciting death. Angel thinks of himself
as daring, but he faints at the sight of blood and when he admits to Diego
that he's a virgin, Diego suggests he may be homosexual. Furious, Angel
sets out to prove his manhood by attempting to rape Diego's fashion-model
girlfriend, Eva (Eva Cobo). Fortunately for Eva, everything goes wrong.
First Angel can't open the pocketknife he intends to menace her with; then
he ejaculates prematurely. While stalking away from him, Eva slips and cuts
her cheek and, true to form, Angel passes out.

When Angel tries to turn himself in to the police the next day, Eva
contemptuously relates what happened and refuses to press charges. Angel,
who lives under the thumb of his strict, guilt-inducing Catholic mother
(Julietta Serano) and is cursed with clairvoyant visions of a string of
recent murders, assumes he must be responsible for the killings and
confesses. His case is taken up by Maria (Assumpta Serna), a prominent
lawyer convinced of his innocence. What Angel doesn't know is that Maria,
who picks up men and -- at the height of orgasm -- plunges a long silver
hairpin into their vertebrae, is responsible for some of the murders he
sees. What neither of them know (but Maria discovers) is that Diego is
responsible for the rest. Like Maria, he murders his victims (young women
from his bullfighting class whom he seduces) at the height of his climax as
a way of reliving the excitement of the bullring. When Diego and Maria
finally meet up -- in a movie theater, as both of them stare raptly at
the climax of "Duel in the Sun" where the hot-blooded lovers, Jennifer
Jones and Gregory Peck, kill each other -- they realize they've each found
someone with whom to share the ultimate pleasure. All that's left for
them to do is plan their Liebestod (love/death).

The idea of two lovers seeing their own fates in the oversize kitsch of
"Duel in the Sun" is juicy, but the crazy extremes of this pair's passion
is on that same huge scale. Movies are all they can measure themselves
against because they've left ordinary life so far behind. Almodóvar both
parodies and celebrates how the unreality of movies becomes a part of the
mythology we carry around in our heads. And he gives things a twist by
making the reality of "Matador" so deliberately overheated, extravagant and
absurd, and the look so lush and ripe (the film was shot by Angel Luis
Fernandez) that the characters find themselves in an existence not far
removed from their fantasies. The air of "Matador" is so thick with desire
and violence, it's as if Angel's visions just seeped into his brain from
the outside atmosphere.

Almodóvar pulls off some virtuouso sequences, like one that cuts between
Diego's explaining to his students how to kill a bull by plunging a sword
between its shoulder blades and Maria's killing a pickup by plunging her
silver hairpin in the center of her lipstick print between the guy's
shoulders. The plot zips along without waiting for us to catch up, but
there's also a becalmed quality to the film, a perfect match for the tone
of dark voluptuousness.

"Matador" makes a zingy connection between the repressed passion of
Catholicism (with its images of ecstatic suffering) and the obsessions of
its lovers. Angel's mother, a member of the fanatical right-wing religious
group Opus Dei, shows her devotion by tying a sharp metal garter around her
leg to drive out impure thoughts, complaining all the while about the money
she has to spend on nylons. (That's the Almodóvar touch.) Maria builds a
shrine to Diego. And in one scene, we see a statue of Jesus with wooden
rays of light emanating from its head that look like picas stuck in a bull.

In a movie that celebrates hedonistic pleasure, the heroes have to be the
ones who give themselves over most fully to their fantasies. And in such a
passion-drenched atmosphere -- where Angel's shrink (Carmen Maura) falls in
love with him instantly, where Eva, determined to win her man back from
Maria, wants him more than ever after she overhears him confess to the
murders -- Diego and Maria aren't that much crazier than anyone else. Their
triumph is that they enter the same mythic realm as the lovers at the end
of "Duel in the Sun," and Almodóvar stages that triumph with a knowing
acknowledgment of the irrational potency of romantic kitsch. He loves the
insane grandeur they seek and he's not alone. This is the type of picture
where the other characters are envious of Diego and Maria's perfectly
consummated mad passion. Staring at the aftermath of the pair's final
ecstasy, they all appear enraptured by what they see. The lovers look

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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