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O Magazine

La ley del deseo 
meant to me thirty years ago
and what it means now

The first time I watched La ley del deseo was in 1988, a year after its premiere, when I was 15. The last time was this March 3rd, coinciding with the cycle that the Filmoteca Española devotes to Pedro Almodóvar. In these three decades, Spain has changed a lot, and so have I. Back then, the film provoked a small scandal in a country that was quickly evolving and, despite not being a huge success, it became a cult film. It was particularly shocking for a story about passion and amour fou not to include any heterosexual characters. It was a “faggot film” and that was very brave in those times. Almodóvar defined it as a melodrama that talked about “the absolute necessity to feel desirable and the fact that in that strange round in which people desire people, desires rarely coincide.” With time, La ley del deseo has acquired a status of Spanish classic and has become an untouchable film in its director’s oeuvre. And since much has been written and talked about the film already, I wouldn’t like to go on about the same thing. That’s why, even if I’m not too keen on first-person film criticism, I think that telling my own experience might be useful to understand what the film meant for some of its viewers thirty years ago and what it can mean now, and whether it has stood the test of time or not.


Flashback. We’re in 1988. I spent several weeks seeing the film on the video club shelf before I dared to rent it. I was afraid the owner might think I liked boys, so I rented 9 weeks and 1/2 as well to compensate. Like many teenagers from my generation, I lived my homosexuality with fear, shame and I never talked about it to anyone. I still see myself going round the block, very nervous, before daring to enter the no longer existing Martin’s discotheque in Barcelona, to end up realising that its sordid, dark atmosphere, full of men that went there on their own and didn’t look like they were having much fun wasn’t what I wanted in my life. La ley del deseo, on the contrary, was the opposite: its exuberant and sensual aesthetics, its lively colours, a protagonist who lived its sexual condition with no complex and without hiding. All that was very important to me. Thanks to Almodóvar I started idealising that other city in which you could be yourself, have fun with beautiful and cosmopolite people, get rid of emotional repression and lead an intense life. This film, and la Movida in general, decisively contributed to turning Madrid into a mystic territory for any gay person back then, who emigrated en masse in the nighties from the provinces to the capital, turning Chueca into their very own El Dorado.

Thanks to La ley del deseo I also learned how two boys fucked. The mythical sequence in which Eusebio Poncela deflowers Antonio Banderas was the kind of sexual education I never had, although at the time I didn’t notice the detail of the lubricant, I still didn’t know what it was or what it was used for. In any case, to me the most revealing thing was that you could be a faggot and not be effeminate. What a stupid thing, right? But until then, I had only been exposed to representations of homosexuality in the public confessions of writer Terenci Moix, in the performances in TVE music programmes of the very affected (and wonderful, I’ve got to say) Marc Almond and Boy George, in the jokes about fags told by Arévalo or Martes y Trece, in the troglodyte comedies by Mariano Ozores or in Alfredo Landa’s terrible but very popular No desearás al vecino del quinto. In 1988, the term “heteronormative” didn’t exist yet, but it was clear that it would come short to describe the situation.

Flash-forward. We go back to 2017. What I have just explained has no importance at all, no transcendence whatsoever in the Spain of today. A gay 15-year-old guy doesn’t need to watch La ley del deseo to model his identity. Luckily, we have evolved in this area for good. No one is shocked now by sex scenes, or cocks, or cocaine, or all those things that at the time were so much talked about. What is left, thus, is the work devoid of its sociological depth, a crazy melodrama that mirrors Fassbinder, Douglas Sirk and film noir. This is the way in which I enjoyed it the last time I saw it, with eyes clean of any pre-conception, and I was pleasantly surprised to see how well the first part, the more custom and manners one, had stood the test of time. In it it’s concentrated the best of the film, with its defence of non-traditional families, far from the norm, something that will appear again in other of Almodóvar’s works, in particular in the magnificent Todo sobre mi madre. The protagonist, Pablo (Eusebio Poncela), his transsexual sister Tina (Carmen Maura) and the girl Ada (Manuela Velasco), daughter of Tina’s ex-girlfriend, form a family united by affection and not biology. We have to take into account that for many gays, who for years suffered the rejection of their blood families, who today are still unable to take their partners to visit their parents or simply talk about their condition, and for whom up to four days ago couldn’t adopt children, inventing a family was the only way to escape loneliness and face misfortunes. Almodóvar knows it, hence his contempt for genetics: your family is the people you choose.

The first act includes as well the three best sequences in all the film, not by chance starring the great Carmen Maura. The meeting with the priest who abused her as a child is really disturbing, but it’s almost better the reading of the essay La voix humaine interrupted by the arrival of her ex (Bibiana Fernández, back then still known as Bibi Andersen). In a jump into the void with no net, Tina and Ada ask from the stage not to be abandoned, the girl through a playback of Ne me quitte pas and the adult through Jean Cocteau’s monologue. Explained in words it might sound ridiculous, but when you see it, it is almost sublime. Although the most sublime moment in La ley del deseo is and always will be the “no se corte, riégueme” moment, the one I’ll never tire of if I see it a hundred or a thousand times more. The extraordinary thing about that improvised night hosing is that it works as a metaphor for desire. In the former scene we see Pablo, Tina and Ada having dinner with no appetite and in a huff. They walk, with apathy, until Tina decides to ask the cleaner to make her wet with his hose, and that shower gives her new energy and vigour. Immediately after, she proposes Pablo they should go and get drunk. That shower is, thus, like desire in that it gives us strength and momentum, it’s the engine of life.

Unfortunately, when La ley del deseo becomes a thriller, from the murder of the character played by Micky Molina onwards, the film doesn’t stand the test of time so well; at times it sinks, unredeemable. For instance, during Pablo’s visit to Seville, with the ridiculous confession of the crime on behalf of the character played by Antonio Banderas. No less ridiculous is the water falling in front of the camera for us to feel how Pablo’s eyes are filled with tears before his car accident. The couple of policemen played by Fernando Guillén and his son, a kind of Spanish version of Tintín‘s Dupont and Dupond ruin all the sequences in which they appear, and they are many (it’s particularly grotesque their encounter with Tina, when Fernando Guillén Cuervo slaps her and she ends up punching him). And, well, what to say about the scene anticipating the climax, when Pablo realises his sister is in danger and calls her on the phone. Those dialogue lines (“Tina, he murdered Juan. He’s not a bad person, but is completely mad”) deserve a place among the most ridiculous ever signed by Almodóvar as scriptwriter (and he has many others that are very ridiculous). And Pablo in the midst of his catharsis throwing the typewriter through the window, which explodes -it explodes!- as if it were a hand grenade… that is unforgivable, no matter how symbolic it might try to be.

Despite all that, at the end of the film you get the feeling of having seen a work of art in which its author took several risks, talking in strictly cinematographic terms: some of its staging decisions (the camera advancing at full speed in the opposite direction than Carmen Maura in the hospital corridor, the travelling following Antonio Banderas before fading into a passionate kiss with Poncela, or that lateral motion that closes the already quoted fragment of La voix humaine) and also the will to force verisimilitude in its looking for that dose of pure madness that exists in the most stylised works of Sirk, Minnelli, Fassbinder, De Palma… That risk, that boldness, is what makes watching La ley del deseo worthwhile in 2017. I guess it’s a beautiful compensation for any filmmaker daring to take risks (even if he made some mistakes along the way): to see thirty years later, when you are no longer an enfant terrible, when the noise around you has stopped, that your film is still exciting and appealing to new generations of viewers.