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Pedro Almodóvar’s LAW OF DESIRE: Homosexual Relationships and a Trans Woman in the Late 1980s

Antonio (Antonio Banderas) insists on a relationship with Pablo (Eusebio Poncela)

By Robert St. Martin

Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 8/15/23 – The film of Pedro Almodóvar will screen this Wednesday.  Outfest is presenting LAW OF DESIRE (1987) in 35mm with American Cinematheque at the Los Feliz 3!⁠

There will also be a book signing with author Manuel Betancourt for his essay collection, “The Male Gazed: On Hunks, Heartthrobs, and What Pop Culture Taught Me About (Desiring) Men.”⁠
Get your tickets now at the link below:

Shot in the later part of 1986, Law of Desire was Almodóvar’s first work centered on homosexual relationships. He considers Law of Desire the key film in his life and career. It follows the more serious tone set by Almodóvar’s previous film, Matador, exploring the unrestrained force of desire. The film’s themes include love, loss, gender, family, sexuality, and the close link between life and art. At the time of its release in 1987, Law of Desire was a big hit with audiences, becoming Almodóvar’s most successful film up to that point. It toured many international film festivals, winning the Teddy Award at the Berlin Film Festival and it made Almodóvar known internationally.

Pablo (Eusebio Poncela), his sister Tina (Carmen Maura), & little girl Ada (Manuela Velasco)

The story focuses on a complex love triangle between three men. Pablo (Eusebio Poncela), a successful gay film director, disappointed in his relationship with his young lover, Juan (Miguel Molina), concentrates in a new project, a monologue starring his transgender sister, Tina (Carmen Maura). Antonio (Antonio Banderas), an uptight young man, falls possessively in love with the director, and in his passion would stop at nothing to obtain the object of his desire. The relationship between Pablo and Antonio is at the core of the film; however, the story of Pablo’s sister, Tina, plays a strong role in the plot.

Pablo (Eusebio Poncela) with his lover Juan (Miguel Molina) before Juan leaves for the south of Spain

Pedro Almodóvar’s Law of Desire is a strange movie, perpetually stuck between genres and never quite settling into any one mode for very long. Often entertaining, but in the end the film has only isolated dazzling moments that linger beyond the ephemeral. It’s a dark comedy that isn’t actually very funny, a melodrama so ridiculous it challenges even daytime soap standards of believability, a half-hearted murder thriller whose villain is one of the film’s goofiest characters.

Rossy De Palma as a television talk show host interviewing Pablo (Eusebio Poncela)

Pablo Quintero (Eusebio Poncela) is a successful gay film and theatrical director whose latest work, The Paradigms of the Mussel, has just been released. At the opening night party, he discusses with his much younger lover, Juan, their summer plans. Pablo would stay in Madrid working on a new project, while Juan would leave for his hometown in the south to work in a bar and stay with his family. Pablo is in love with Juan, but he realizes that his love is not returned with the intensity he desires.

Antonio (Antonio Banderas) mad passion for Pablo (Eusebio Poncela)

Pablo is very close to his transsexual sister Tina (Carmen Maura), a struggling actress. Tina has recently been abandoned by her lesbian lover, a model (Bibi Andersen), who left her in charge of her ten-year-old daughter Ada. Frustrated in her relationship with men, Tina dedicates her time to Ada, being a loving surrogate mother. The precocious Ada does not miss her cold mother. She is happier living with Tina and spending time with Pablo, on whom she has a crush. Tina, Ada, and Pablo form an unusual family unit. Pablo looks after them both. For his next project, Pablo writes an adaptation of Cocteau’s monologue-play The Human Voice, to be performed by his sister.

Antonio (Antonio Banderas) in bed with Pablo (Eusebio Poncela)

Elements from Law of Desire grew into the basis for three later films: Carmen Maura appears in a stage production of Jean Cocteau’s The Human Voice, which inspired Almodóvar’s next film, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Tina’s confrontation scene with an abusive priest formed the partial genesis for Bad Education (2004), which starred Gael García Bernal. More recently Almodóvar finally made a short film version of Cocteau’s The Human Voice (2020), starring Tilda Swinton – his first film to be acted in English

Antonio (Antonio Banderas) reading the letter that he thinks Juan wrote to Pablo

Carmen Maura’s tempestuous, flighty performance as Tina is a true wonder. Tina is a rich, unforgettable character, much more nuanced and memorable than Pablo, the film’s ostensible protagonist, or anybody else in the film. She steals the film from everyone. Her backstory is complicated and absurdly melodramatic, and doesn’t spill out until towards the end of the film, but what’s obvious throughout is that she’s a damaged woman who’s given up on romantic, sexual love long ago. Instead, she pours herself into her love for her brother, and for the little girl she’s adopted, the feisty Ada (Manuela Velasco). Her history suggests that she’s Almodóvar’s version of Fassbinder’s Elvira from In a Year With 13 Moons (she even gets her sex change in Morocco, like Elvira), but she’s ultimately much more comfortable in her skin, and her chosen gender, than Fassbinder’s character.

Tina (Carmen Maura) with Ada (Manuela Velasco) in a performance of The Human Voice)

At the play’s opening night, Pablo meets Antonio (Antonio Banderas), a young man who has been obsessed with the director since he watched the gay theme film The Paradigms of the Mussel. At the end of the evening, they go home together and have sex. For Antonio this is his first homosexual experience, while Pablo considers it just a lusty episode. Pablo is still in love with his long-time lover, Juan. Antonio misunderstands Pablo’s intentions and takes their encounter as a relationship. He soon reveals his possessive character as a lover.

Antonio (Antonio Banderas) burning his shirt in the bathroom to destroy evidence of what he has done

Antonio (Antonio Banderas), who maintains that he’s always been straight but who jumps wholeheartedly into this gay relationship anyway. The film sometimes seems to be about this romantic triangle, with Pablo still in love with Juan, angering the possessive Antonio. And sometimes the film is about Pablo’s sister Tina (Carmen Maura), a transsexual who stars in his films and plays. Frankly, whenever the focus is on Tina, this suddenly becomes a much more interesting film.

Pablo (Eusebio Poncela) has amnesia after car crash

Antonio comes across a love letter addressed to Pablo, signed by Juan, but which in fact was written by Pablo to himself. The letter makes Antonio fall into a jealous rage, but he has to return to his native Andalusia, where he lives with his domineering German mother. As he promised, Pablo sends Antonio a letter signed Laura P, the name of a character inspired by his sister in a script he is writing. In his letter, Pablo tells Antonio that he loves Juan and intends to join him. However, Antonio, who is jealous and wants to get rid of Juan, gets there first. Antonio wants to possess everything that belongs to Pablo, and tries to have sex with Juan. When Juan rebukes his advances, Antonio throws him off a cliff. After killing his rival, Antonio quickly heads for his hometown. Pablo becomes a suspect in the crime because the police have found in Juan’s fist a piece of clothing that matches a distinctive shirt owned by Pablo. In fact, Antonio was wearing an exact replica when he killed Juan.

Pablo drives down to see his dead lover, realizes that Antonio is responsible for the murder, and confronts him about it. They have an argument and Pablo drives off, pursued by the police. Blinded by tears, he crashes his car injuring his head. He awakes in a hospital, suffering from amnesia, Antonio’s mother shows the police the letters her son received, signed Laura P. The mysterious Laura P becomes the prime suspect, but the police cannot find her. Antonio returns to Madrid and, in order to get closer to Pablo who is still in the hospital, seduces Tina who believes his love to be genuine.

To help her brother recover his memory, Tina tells him about their past. Born as a boy, in her adolescence she began an affair with their father. She ran away with him and had a sex change operation to please him, but he left her for another woman. When her incestuous relationship ended, Tina returned to Madrid, coinciding with the death of their mother, and got reunited with Pablo. Tina has been grateful that Pablo does not judge her. Tina also tells him that she has found a lover. Pablo gradually begins to recover; he realizes that Tina’s new love is Antonio and that she is in danger. He goes with the police to Tina’s apartment where she is being held hostage by Antonio. Antonio threatens a bloodbath unless he can have an hour alone with Pablo. Pablo agrees and joins him. They make love and Antonio then commits suicide.

Carmen Maura is phenomenal as Tina as this transsexual actress who deals with her identity as she wants to become an actress while dealing with the work that her brother is writing as it’s a role that is quite ballsy but also one that exudes femininity as it’s one of Maura’s great performances. Eusebio Poncela is brilliant as Tina’s brother Pablo Quintero as this filmmaker who writes about the struggles of women and homosexuality as he tries to juggle his own relationships as well as how his work sometimes cause tension between himself and Tina. Finally, there’s Antonio Banderas in a remarkable performance as Antonio as this very troubled and obsessive stalker who is in love with Pablo yet couldn’t deal with sharing Pablo with anyone else as it’s a very dangerous and intense performance from Banderas as well as one of highlights in his collaboration with Almodóvar. At times, the film seems like a confused (and confusing) pastiche, and admittedly a rather fun whirlwind ride despite its flaws.