If Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown saw Pedro Almodovar break into the mainstream and discover a surprising amount of crossover appeal within the United States, then Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! was where he contemplated the ramifications of that crossover, and his new proximity to Hollywood and the American marketplace. As a result, there’s no other film in his career that quite orients itself with respect to Hollywood in the same way, to the point where Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! often plays as a parody of precisely what might be expected from an indie director after they had achieved this breakout success. Not surprisingly, then, the narrative revolves around a film set, although very little of the critical plot development takes place upon it. Instead, our focus is largely contained by the relationship between Ricky (Antonio Banderas), a recently released psychiatric patient, and Marina (Victoria Abril), a B-movie actress whom he abducts from the set of The Midnight Phantom, a “second-rate horror film,” and ties up in his apartment. At first, it seems as if his motivation might be sexual gratification, or even some kind of strange fetish that can only be satisfied in this particular way, but as Almodovar’s narrative proceeds it quickly becomes clear that Ricky’s motivations are as conventional as could be imagined – he simply wants Marina to marry him, have children with him, and start a regular family life.
What ensues plays as one of Almodovar’s most brilliant parodies of the demands Hollywood cinema makes upon women for monogamy – not merely monogamy of the body, but monogamy of the gaze, since Ricky only really constrains Marina in the first place to ensure that she has nobody else to look at, and nobody else to look back at her. In the process, the film displaces the notion of consent from something attached to individual acts to something attached to the very premise of heterosexual monogamy in the first place. While that might initially make for a film that seems flippant or caustic about the possibility of female consent, it gradually segues into a perfectly pitched parody of what it means to consent to heterosexual monogamy, and a parodic narrative of becoming heterosexual, to the point where heterosexuality comes to consists of no more or less than this particular demand placed upon women to channel their desires and focus their gazes in one fixed direction, if only for the sake of being fixed as singular and comprehensible objects of scrutiny themselves. Within the logic of the film, that also means that Ricky himself is effectively staging his own film, albeit a film that is forced to entirely disavow the campy, kitschy, messy promiscuity of The Midnight Phantom in favour of a feature that leaves nothing outside his own gaze, and which renders Marina utterly dependent upon that gaze.
In other words, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! beautifully pinpoints a schism at the heart of Hollywood – namely, that it mobilises the male gaze as a source of mass entertainment, but that the male gaze also, by definition, doesn’t permit the existence of any other gazes. By crafting a scenario in which Ricky crafts a series of mise-en-scenes purely for his own benefit, Almodovar doesn’t undercut so much as take the male gaze to its logical conclusion, overidentifying so drastically with Hollywood that he ends up with a premise that is even more preposterously and tonally provocative than that of his more independent earlier features. It’s the perfect way to negotiate the inevitable pressure to conform to Hollywood aesthetics that comes with heightened mainstream exposure, and gives Almodovar more scope to play around with trending Hollywood aesthetics than at just about any other moment in his career. Nowhere is that clearer than in Ennio Morricone’s score, which Almodovar apparently quite disliked, believing that it was just a little too conventional and emotionally manipulative for such a bizarre conceit. Yet in retrospect the score feel crucial in generating this distorted and deflected middle-of-the-road mentality that makes the film so uncanny and memorable, even or especially as it grows ever more milquetoast and tame.
In that light, one of the most surprising things about the film, is that the rope and handcuffs used to tie Marina down are quickly shorn of their fetishistic overtones, or of any associations with bondage whatsoever, and instead migrated into regular domestic fixtures, or even items in an upmarket lifestyle catalogue, just as the lurid, bright and somewhat inane hues of Almodovar’s mise-en-scenes paint Ricky’s apartment as a tasteful advertisement for upwardly mobile marriage. The funky early 90s bric-a-brac aesthetic, in particular, becomes something of a cipher for Ricky and Marina’s piecemeal rapport, as if the film were occupying the very moment at which mainstream décor started to domesticate Almodovar’s more underground aesthetic. No surprise, then, that Almodovar himself was quite emphatic in his intention to shear these paraphernalia of imprisonment from any overtly sadomasochistic valency, as the sense of bondage is displaced from these ropes and cuffs to the smothering domesticity that renders them so unremarkable in the first place, the middlebrow bourgeois milieu that can domesticate anything remotely exotic.
Indeed, as Ricky and Marina’s heated exchanges segue from aggression, to banter, to a more traditional marital comfort, it barely seems as if she is tied down at all, but more that she prefers – like so many spouses – to speak to her partner from the next room, so acclimatised to his manner that she doesn’t even require his physical presence as he moves from one odd job around the house to the next. The result is a parody – or perhaps just a prescience – of how Hollywood, time and again, and across diverse genres, presents heterosexuality as a certain kind of achievement – an achievement over female desire for men, and an achievement over their own desire for women – since for all that Marina might be tied up for the majority of the film, part of the parody lies in the way in which it presents this process in terms of Ricky’s physical labour, and Ricky’s physical achievement. In one especially brilliant sequence, he’s severely injured in the process of trying to find medicine for her, returning to the apartment covered in wounds, and clutching his face in agony. Yet not only is this also the moment at which Marina consents to dedicate her gaze to him, but also the moment at which she decides to sleep with him, leading to an encounter that is presented as infinitely more painful to him than it is to her, despite the fact that she has been tied up for days, and that this would have been rape a mere matter of minutes ago.
If the film becomes more horrifying in its visions of heteronormativity at this particular point, that’s partly because of how Almodovar offsets the strange brutality of this exchange with an even more intensified normality. In part, that’s a matter of Morricone’s score, which reaches its most conventional refrains during this final act, and could almost play as a series of parodic riffs upon Hans Zimmer, John Williams, Danny Elfman, or any other number of go-to blockbuster composers. In the process, Ricky and Marina’s relationship takes on a new pace, escalating through every stage in a standard marriage until they have effectively turned into their own parents. Not surprisingly, this conflates Ricky himself with the director he supposedly saved Marin from, as all his efforts to replace the cheesy promiscuity of her B-picture with a series of more standardised sightlines collapse, as if by fate, into the horror tropes against which we originally glimpsed her. By the end, it feels as if the only genre that can aspire to over-identify with the male gaze as Ricky seems to require is horror, even or especially as horror also denatures this male gaze in the very process of identifying with it.
The more that Ricky tries to extricate Marina from the B-picture into some kind of standardised heteronormativity, then, the more that heteronormativity itself plays as a B-picture. If the building where Marina is tied up feels more and more indebted to classical Hollywood in the process (especially once she and Ricky move across the corridor to escape detection), then it’s classicism as a camp effect, rather than the self-serious Hollywood classicism of the early 90s that the film is perpetually on the verge of inhabiting in its cool, funky and tasteful décor. When Marina’s best friend eventually discovers what is going on, she insists that “you must be in shock – you can’t be that kinky” – and yet the film is not really about “kink” as a discrete phenomenon so much as a guiding principle of heterosexuality in the first place, just as it is not really about camp as a exceptional experience so much as a corrosive potential inherent to Hollywood classicism from the start. Trying to dissociate kink from heterosexuality, Almodovar suggests, is as futile as trying to dissociate camp from classicism, as the film finally congeals into a conventional family drama, but in such a way as to make heterosexuality seem like the strangest and queerest manner of orchestrating human relations, and the camera’s own orientation towards them.
Of course, that’s what makes Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! so wonderfully queer itself – the way it queers heterosexuality – and yet this isn’t exactly a queer “rehabilitation” of heterosexuality either. From the bittersweet final scene, in which Marina and her new family break into song before breaking into tears, to the final scene of The Midnight Phantom, in which the heroine manages to escape out the window only to be left to dangle indefinitely, there’s a pervasive sense of some other world outside this strange relational universe between men and women, a world that is damaged by it but never exactly discernible or visible from it either. The closest we come are the plethora of perverse and promiscuous impulses and outlets that Ricky gradually incorporates into and domesticates by way of his rapport with Marin, albeit this is a process that eventually just clarifies that there is something residual that won’t be domesticated, if only the inchoate sadness of being domesticated and rendered invisible in the first place. And it is in that sadness, and its resilience, that the film’s queerness lies, in a poignant meditation on the mixed blessings of the kinds of crossover queer visibility that were starting to saturate the cusp of the long 90s.