Obsessed and Obscene: Pedro Almodóvar's Straight Male Gaze
Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar is one of the most prominent queer filmmakers on the international film stage. His films feature gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, sex workers, trans people, drag queens, nymphomaniacs, and other “sexual deviants.” Almodóvar often frames these people as fully realized characters, even in his most heightened melodramas or farcical comedies. Because of his appreciation for outcasts of polite society, it is fascinating when Almodóvar turns his queer lens onto heteronormativity. Most movies, especially in Hollywood, are framed through the straight male gaze. Almodóvar in turns satirizes the straight male gaze through exaggerations of heterosexuality, often leaning into problematic tropes that often go unexamined in Hollywood.
While many of Almodóvar ‘s films feature heterosexual men in romantic/sexual relationships, there are a few films where Almodóvar is specifically targeting the straight male gaze: Matador (1986), Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990), and Talk to Her (2003). Both The Skin I Live In (2011) and Labyrinth of Passion (1982) also poke holes in the sanctity of straight relationships as an ideal model. In these films, Almodóvar is questioning why heterosexuality is the proper default by making it strange through his homosexual camera.
Matador is a bizarre psychosexual thriller where a serial killing former matador (Nacho Martinez) and a murderous attorney (Assumpta Serna) flirt with each other, bonded by their mutual obsession with death. Their erotic cat and mouse game culminates in a mutual suicide, which occurs not only during the throes of orgasm but at the precise time of a solar eclipse. Antonio Banderas co-stars a bullfighting student whose masculinity is continually ridiculed. His religious mother berates him constantly, he faints at the sight of blood, and his attempt to prove his heterosexuality by raping a woman goes comically awry (he fumbles with his knife and ejaculates before he can even penetrate the victim; she seems more annoyed than anything else). Even the detective, as a stand-in for the patriarchal law, is insinuated to be a closeted homosexual who can barely keep his eyes off hunky matadors to question witnesses. Between the orgasmic murder scenes and the feminized straight men, Matador is taking aim at exposing just how peculiar heterosexuality can be. This is especially true in the post-Francisco Franco political climate in which Matador takes place.
Antonio Banderas returns in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, Almodóvar ’s twisted romantic comedy. Banderas stars as Ricki, a recently released mental patient who stalks and kidnaps porn star/actress Marina (Victoria Abril). Convinced that she will eventually fall in love with him, Banderas keeps her hostage and, true enough, Marina falls in love with her captor. Tie Me Up! was controversial upon release, partially because the film endorses the problematic “Stockholm syndrome” narrative of women falling in love with their captor. But I think Almodóvar is going for something deeper. Almodóvar is laying bare tired heteronormative tropes through an exaggerated kidnap courtship. The movie makes explicit what rape culture and the male gaze keep in subtext: that men often win the affection of women simply by wearing them down and forcing the relationship. Ricki’s robotic and failed attempts to provide for Marina are a satire of toxic masculinity; Ricki can barely do anything right and his attempts at toughness fall flat. In the end, Marina ties herself down to Ricki, and Almodóvar invokes the question-mark finale of The Graduate, creating another parody of the romantic Hollywood ending.
Perhaps one of Almodóvar’s biggest crossover successes, Talk to Her, is another twisted love story, and his most enigmatic and somber. Talk to Her features two men who meet each other while caring for two comatose women: Benigno is a nurse (Javier Camara) who fell in love with dancer Alicia (Leonor Watling), who happened to suffer an accident and land in his care. Marco (Dario Grandinetti) had a relationship with bullfighter Lydia (Rosario Flores), who was gored by a bull. The film paints Benigno as devoted to Alicia, but his love reveals itself to be a sinister obsession, even if Almodóvar depicts it through his perspective. He’s soft and feminine, so one might not think he’s threatening at first. Marco is more macho, but he is lovesick over a distant girlfriend in a much more masculine profession. Both men cry and talk about their feelings, allowed to because the women, who normally take lead for Almodóvar, are comatose. But Almodóvar’s most elegant trick is that neither man realizes the severity of their actions, and, so absorbed in their psychodrama, the audience almost falls for it. These men might be feminized but they still feel entitled to women’s bodies and autonomy.
Beyond these three films, Almodóvar exaggerates heteronormativity in other films. In Labyrinth of Passion, two star-crossed lovers cure each other of respective perversions (nymphomania and homosexuality, of course) by entering in a chaste, heterosexual relationship. The Skin I Live In has Antonio Banderas as a mad scientist who, out of perverted and disturbed love for his dead wife, forces a man to have a sex change and become her.
Pedro Almodóvar’s queer lens often exposes the hypocrisies and prejudices of society through these problematic tropes and appalling concepts, showing how obscene we all are behind closed doors.