Tuesday, January 10, 2012
Pedro Almodóvar's Matador opens with a man masturbating while watching grisly, garish murders clipped out of trashy slasher movies. Almodóvar alternates between closeups on the face of former bullfighter Diego Montez (Nacho Martínez) and the grainy movie clips, in which one woman after another is killed in particularly gory and often sexualized ways. It's a bold opening scene that immediately establishes the film's central theme, the mysterious connection between sex and death, and especially the ways in which movies often display murder with a sensationalized, exploitative sexual component. In the following scene, Diego teaches a class about bullfighting — attentively watched by the naïve young student Ángel (Antonio Banderas) — and Almodóvar cuts between the class and a seduction scene in which the lawyer María Cardenal (Assumpta Serna) leads a man to his sexual death at her hands. Diego's words about killing a bull neatly parallel María's interactions with her victim, as she guides him into her arms like a matador leading the bull on, pulling him in by his belt, letting her clothes unfurl from off her body like the matador's cape, then mounting him and pulling a slender pin from her hair, stabbing the man in the back of the neck at precisely the spot where a matador stabs the bull at the end of a fight. The parallel editing unites Diego and María even before they've met, the former matador and the active matador, dancing and twirling gracefully around her victims before she brings them down.
Later, Diego and María will meet — pulled together by Ángel's Catholic guilt and urge to confess to crimes he hasn't even committed — and the parallels of the opening will become even more pronounced. Diego, it turns out, has been unable to give up the thrill of the kill even after a goring that ended his bullfighting career; "I didn't know you were still a matador," María coos, excited and aroused, when she learns that Diego has been killing young girls. The film is an amour fou romance, a love story about two death-obsessed killers who find their perfect match in one another, whose mutual worship of the art of killing makes it certain that they'll end up in one another's arms, knives held to each other's necks. At around the midpoint of the film, Diego follows María into a movie theater showing King Vidor's Duel in the Sun, and together they watch the climax in which the doomed lovers mortally wound each other, then embrace and kiss, declaring their love as they die. It's obvious then that this will also be the trajectory of Diego and María, that they are fated to follow the same path and end up in the same romantically morbid position.
Around this central romance, Almodóvar weaves a number of subplots and themes that deal with sexuality and gender. Ángel is a sexual innocent who says he has never been with a woman, which prompts Diego to wonder if his pupil is gay. Ángel, determined to prove that he's not, goes out that night and attempts to rape Diego's girlfriend, Eva (Eva Cobo), an act that only proves that he has little conception of sexuality at all. His sexuality is tied up with his admiration for his teacher, his simplistic worship of Diego's masculine bravado and ease with women. Ángel is a deeply confused character, raised by an overbearing, religious mother (Julieta Serrano) who watches his every move with suspicion and contempt. At one point, while Ángel sits naked on the edge of the tub, about to take a shower, his mother appears at the bathroom door, her face distorted by frosted glass, peering suspiciously in at him, telling him to stop looking at himself in the mirror and just take his shower already. The tiled glass breaks her face into abstracted mosaic cubes, a fragmented vision of motherly disapproval. Immediately after this scene, Almodóvar cuts to a closeup of her bare leg, propped up as she ties a garter around her thigh, while her son sits at the dinner table nearby, watching her. Everything becomes freighted with sexual import in this film, even the troubled relationship between mother and son.
Ángel's mother is a vicious caricature of insane piety, and she snipes incessantly at Ángel, perhaps influenced by her obviously negative feelings about her dead husband. Every time she mentions Ángel's father, she reflexively adds, "may he rest in peace," her voice dripping with bile and scorn, and there's even a subtle suggestion that she may have killed him — her son faints at the sight of blood, and in that, she says, he's not like her at all. Domineering mothers and absent fathers are the rule in this film. Eva's mother Pilar (Chus Lampreave) is similarly overbearing, always lurking by her daughter's side, leaning over her shoulder to dispense advice, constantly expressing her disapproval. Eva's father is nowhere to be found, either, and his absence — dead or simply gone, it hardly matters — has made Pilar bitter and distrustful, urging her daughter not to rely on love.
These are broadly stereotyped roles, drawing on familiar clichés about single mothers and asshole fathers. In fact, the film is very much concerned with gender roles and the pressure to conform to them. Ángel's desire to prove his masculinity to his teacher, to rebut the insinuation that he's gay, is what leads him to rape Eva — and when she tells the police that he didn't actually rape her, that he came before he could even penetrate her, he seems embarrassed and humiliated more than anything, his guilty feelings mingled with a shameful suspicion that he has only confirmed his lack of masculinity. In fact, Almodóvar shoots the scene where Ángel goes to the police to confess like it's gay cruising, with Ángel and the detective (Eusebio Poncela) exchanging charged glances from across the police station, separated from one another by a glass divider. Later, the detective watches one of Diego's bullfighting classes and Almodóvar inserts closeups on the crotches of the male students in the class as they twist and turn, practicing their killing moves. The detective, gathering evidence, is observing the bulges in their pants, as though they're half-excited as they twirl their capes and thrust with their swords.
Another subtext in the film is the question of proper roles for women. Rape is treated very curiously, almost cavalierly, by Eva and her mother. They seem resigned to it, and unwilling to do anything about it. They don't want to talk about it with the police, even after Ángel confesses, and when they're dragged down to the police station they refuse to press charges. Eva's mother says that the girl has been raped several times before — she can't even remember if it was three or four times — and neither of them seems especially surprised by it. It's as though they think it's just a part of life, something to be expected if you're young and attractive and walking around outside, attracting the attention of men. Later in the film, Eva, dressing up to go see Diego, tells her mother she's going out; "no wonder they're always raping you," her mother groans, as though the simple act of going out for a walk in a nice dress is an invitation for a sexual assault.
In many ways, this film is Almodóvar's darkly humorous satire of the treatment of women in a society obsessed with masculinity, violence, and death. When María takes on Ángel's case as his lawyer, a newscaster, breaking her objectivity, accuses María of "repugnant cynicism" for daring to defend a man accused of crimes against women. It's a strange conception of feminism that scolds her for not doing what's expected of her, for not keeping her distance as a show of solidarity. In a way, María defies expectations with her murders, too: the male slasher/female victim trope is so dominant, both in the cinema and in real life, that it's a shock to see a woman deploying the same template against male victims. That's why the revelation that María kills because she's obsessed with Diego is such a big disappointment, making her just another female stalker basing her life on a man's actions. She would have been a far more interesting figure if she had killed for her own mysterious reasons, driven by her own inner drives just as Diego is, rather than simply following his example. It's a disappointing twist that somewhat undercuts the much more complex and ambiguous psychosexual currents in the film.
Despite this bow to conventionality, Matador remains a provocative and fascinating film, a lurid examination of sex and death and the ways in which they're entangled with cultural expectations and engrained gender roles. It's over-the-top and melodramatic, as expected from Almodóvar, but that only makes its raw, violent emotions even more powerful. It's a conflicted film that never quite settles the question of how we should feel about these characters and their mad urges. It's a film about the loss of control, the inability to resist the desires and passions that bubble up from within, consuming these lovers in murder and sexual bliss.