A Different Kind of Love: Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990)
“You’re crazy! How can you love a kidnapper who ties you up? You think that’s normal?! You must be in shock. You can’t be that kinky!”
That is how Lola (Loles Leon) reacts when she discovers her actress sister Marina (Victoria Abril) has fallen for her kidnapper Ricki (Antonio Banderas). And it’s easy to agree with Lola. The love story between Marina and Ricki is bizarre and perverse. Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is problematic and lurid. And yet this is Pedro Almodovar’s take on a romantic-comedy, and it’s a delightfully icky head-trip. Titled ¡Átame! in Spain (translating to “Tie me up!”), the film caused controversy upon its release in the United States and received an X rating for its sexual and violent content. Ultimately the film’s harsh rating was key in developing the NC-17 rating. Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! performed well both in the U.S. and in Spain, and became one of Almodovar’s signature early hits.
Ricki is released from a mental institution when a judge decrees him fit to reenter society. The director of the institution (Lola Cordona) is resistant to his leaving, partly because they had an illicit steamy affair. Promising to lead a normal life with a job and a family, Ricky stalks former porn star-turned legitimate actress Marina. She is shooting a horror spin-off with horny, paraplegic director Maximo (Francisco Rabal). Ricki kidnaps Marina in her own home, professing his love for her. He vows that she will fall in love with him, and that he will be a good provider for her and their future family. Marina’s sister Lola worries about her since Marina is a former drug addict and finds her disappearance odd.
Almodovar infuses the 1950s melodrama with surreal and obscene elements. His films can be shocking and edgy, but with a tenderness and emotional authenticity. Tie Me Up! is a weird movie, and its depiction of kidnapping and female bondage is unsettling. Sure enough, Almodovar got in trouble big time with feminist groups for the victimized female lead and murky entangling with consent and Stockholm Syndrome (notably Disney’s Beauty and the Beast would release the next year). Almodovar sticks to the narrative of male aggressor/female victim, but it’s not so straightforward.
For one thing, Ricki might be a kidnapper but he is soft-spoken. He thinks he’s being romantic and giving Marina the opportunity to consent freely. Almodovar doesn’t quite let him off the hook, but Ricki tries his hardest to court Marina as respectfully as possible given that he’s holding her hostage. Marina follows his rules so she can determine how safe she is. But she does try to escape, even after she becomes attracted to him. And that happens when Ricki comes home beaten up and she takes care of him. He’s in the passive role, and she can take charge as the active one. And that’s when Ricki and Marina have sex. And it’s hot as hell, intimate, and wild.
Pedro Almodovar is openly gay, and his films reflect that even without LGBT lead characters. Many of his films, but especially Tie Me Up!, feature transgressive, taboo-breaking relationships. The quasi-domestic routine that Marina and Ricky have—including her being tied up and mouth taped up—is a kinkier take on a normal heterosexual couple. Ricki’s pursuit of Marina is just obsession externalized, and Marina’s darker past is the funhouse mirror of the manic pixie dream girl. Through this extreme story, Almodovar is poking fun at the dating rituals most people consider normal.
Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is a classic example of Almodovar’s visual flair, with bright colors, an eccentric score by Ennio Morricone, and beautifully dated costumes. His framing often exhibits comic visual gags, like the wind-up diver in Marina’s bath. The movie Marina is shooting is very funny, and brings in the bondage motif before she even meets Ricki. The ending of the film is quite stunning; it’s at first a parody of a more conventional ending. Then the film shifts to a long take in a car. Marina’s ever changing expression recalls The Graduate, yet more confounding. Almodovar is asking if Marina could ever really consent to Ricki, or if she’ll always be tied up and tied down to him.