Notes on Law of Desire (1987)

illustration by Dani Manning

Pedro Almodóvar’s Law of Desire starts with one of the more memorable opening scenes in his filmography. An actor at a gay porn shoot sits on the edge of a bed and follows the instructions given to him from behind the camera. He’s ordered to strip down to his underwear, then walk to a full-length mirror nearby and kiss his reflection on the lips before heading back to the bed to masturbate. As he moans to himself, the scene is hilariously intercut with footage of the film director and an older voice actor awkwardly dubbing the dialogue in a studio. When all is done, someone approaches the young man and throws a stack of bills onto the nightstand, next to his head. Lying face-down, the porn star begins shuffling through his payment when he’s suddenly interrupted by a block of credits rolling up the frame. 

As is the case with intertextuality in much of Almodóvar’s work, the porn shoot isn’t a film within a film, but a film within a film within a film—and the final scene in the newest movie by Pablo Quintero, a fictional director and the protagonist of Law of Desire. As the audience exits the theater, Almodóvar’s camera follows another man, Antonio, into a bathroom stall where he jerks off with the same furor as the character he just witnessed onscreen.

You could argue that the graphic opening sequence of Almodóvar’s breakout film is in many ways representative of a larger ethos regarding the writer-director’s artistry; an apéritif for international audiences who first became acquainted with the transgression of his work in 1987. Separating the scene from any historical context, you could also say it succinctly encapsulates the film’s themes: the intersection between life and art, and the dolorousness of desire. If you really wanted to go out on a limb, you could even poeticize the image of the model kissing himself in the mirror as an unapologetic (if straightforward) depiction of self-love during an era when gay media was scarce and gay men carried a stigma associated with sickness and death. 

But the one thing you can’t argue about Law of Desire’s brazen and graphic opening sequence is that its provocations are hollow. There’s something innate about Almodóvar’s lyricism, his ability to imbue every frame with layers of meaning to the point that even skeptics and prudes can get something out of it—or at least understand that he wants them to. This is why he’s widely considered one of the most internationally successful contemporary arthouse directors, having garnered superlatives like “[Spain’s] most famous director since Luis Buñuel” (The New Yorker) and “one of the most distinctive voices in cinema” (MoMA) over the past four decades. 

The prestige is notable, especially given how he came from a modest background before making a name for himself, and how his films often focus on marginalized individuals and other taboo subject matter. And yet, I can’t help but recall a conversation I recently had with Ronald Baez, a friend and filmmaker from Miami, about the Western art canon and who is typically recognized by the learned institutions dedicated to preserving it.

“None of my family—none—ever sat around going, ‘I wish some big arts institution would validate me,’” said Ron when I mentioned his short film, Searching for Ana Veldford, which deals with his mother’s decision to emigrate to the US.

Personally, I think both things can be true at once. But what’s most ironic—and remarkable—to me about Almodóvar’s appraisal is how at odds it feels with the provocation of his early work. In a sense, his 1987 entry was his transition from filth cinéaste to more a refined (but still transgressive) form of auteurism.

Plenty has already been said about the legacy of Law of Desire and what it did for Almodóvar’s career, as well as the Spanish film industry in general. For starters, it was the first title released under El Deseo, the production company the director formed with his brother Agustín in 1986, citing limited creative control over his first four features. Shot that same year, the film—like all of his others before then—coincided with a period of countercultural renaissance in Madrid that was characterized by sexual expression, illicit drug trade, and a thriving queer scene amid Spain’s transition to democracy following nationalist dictator Francisco Franco’s death. Although this movement flourished in the country’s capital, it clashed heavily with the country’s national government, which was still criminalizing LGBTQ+ folks and directing evening curfews for women at the time. (In fact, it is said that the ministry of culture refused to fund this project until the government’s representative for film production intervened.) 

Nevertheless, Law of Desire was Almodóvar’s most successful movie upon release both critically and commercially, putting him on the map for international audiences as it toured festivals and won the Teddy Award in Berlin. Coupled with Matador (1986), its release marked his foray into melodrama, and coupled with Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), it’s widely credited as the film that skyrocketed his career outside of Spain. It’s also often (incorrectly) described as Almodóvar’s first gay film—something I always feel the need to clarify given the fact that Dark Habits (1983) centers on a nun’s unrequited love for a female cabaret singer, and that all of his prior films dealt prominently with queer subject matter. 

I bring up these disclaimers because as much as I respect Law of Desire as an early entry into the canon of one of our greatest living artists, the film as such is also overstuffed and convoluted. This is both a feature and a bug (an argument you could make for any of the director’s lesser projects). But as a feature, this complexity is also the film’s biggest strength. For Almodóvar, style and substance have always been inextricable; even his earliest films are as lavish and provocative on the page as they are on the screen. His most mature film upon release, Law of Desire repurposes the classic melodrama to tell a series of suppressed narratives with the visual and sentimental poetry they merit.

Law of Desire tells the story of Pablo Quintero, a gay filmmaker who lives in Madrid with his sister, Tina, and her adoptive daughter, Ada. Pablo is in a relationship with Juan but wants out once he realizes he’s catching feelings. Tina, a sexually fluid transgender woman, has sworn off romance but cares deeply for Pablo and Ada, whom she adopted because the girl’s mother (and Tina’s ex) left them to move to Milan with a new lover. When Juan leaves Madrid to visit his family in the south of Spain, Pablo meets Antonio, an obsessive fan whom he begins a relationship with while working on a stage production of Jean Cocteau’s The Human Voice. What’s initially meant to be a brief affair escalates when Antonio demonstrates that he’ll do whatever it takes to get Pablo to fall in love with him—even if it means killing someone.

Law of Desire is densely plotted, and at only 102 minutes, it’s natural that some of these threads are ultimately left unresolved. But this over-investment in histrionics and world-building is precisely what makes it a compelling character study. By the end of the film, Pablo, Tina, and Antonio feel real, even within Almodóvar’s stylish artifice. They’re complicated people with specific combinations of identities that have the benefit of feeling lived-in to the viewers they share common ground with, and fascinating to anyone on the outside looking in. 

To discuss Almodóvar’s melodramas is to discuss the genre as a whole, and how he refocused it to tell stories about communities who are typically kept out of such narratives even if they comprise a large chunk of its audience. From the sentimental French and English novels of the 18th and 19th centuries to the sound cinema of the 1930s through the 1960s, class conflict is perhaps the melodrama’s most prevalent theme. According to Susan Hayward’s Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts, this usually manifested through the sexual exploitation of the middle class maiden. Therein lies Law of Desire’s first subverted trope: Almodóvar focuses on a lower middle class family, but makes all of the romantic entanglements queer. Although there is a wealthy antagonist, Antonio’s suppressed sexuality and the age difference between him and Pablo creates an interesting power dynamic—which speaks to the writer-director’s disinterest in the genre’s historically rigid distinctions between good and evil.

“My goal as a writer is to have empathy for all characters. In all my films, I have a tendency to redeem my characters,” he told The New York Times in 2004. “I love characters who are crazy in love and will give their life to passion, even if they burn in hell.”

To discuss melodrama is also to discuss the genre’s rise in prominence during the early 20th century, and its reflection of the anxieties that came with global industrialization and modernism. In its throwback to the melodramas of previous decades, Law of Desire does this through its characters’ loneliness and inability to properly communicate with one another. This is especially true for Pablo and Juan’s relationship, which makes it easy for Antonio to create discord between the two and eventually murder his lover’s boyfriend. The loose killer also lends the film an interesting layer of subtext, reflecting social anxiety amid the looming shadow of Franco’s nationalism (though this is also referenced slightly in the text itself through minor characters’ casual homophobia and transphobia).

The second thing melodrama attempted to do in the context of modernization was make sense of the family as a unit. Family is really the centerpiece of Law of Desire, with the relationship between Pablo and Tina serving as the film’s emotional crux. Right before the third act, Pablo suffers a car accident that gives him temporary amnesia. In the hospital, Tina reintroduces herself and tells him about their past. They grew up as twin boys, but were separated when their parents divorced after their mother discovered that her husband and daughter were having an affair. Tina and her father then moved to Morocco, where she had a gender reassignment. When he left her for another woman, she lived estranged from the rest of the family before reuniting with Pablo at their father’s funeral. She says he never judged her after what happened, and that they’ve been inseparable ever since. The arrival of Antonio threatens this sanctuary when Tina is mistaken as Juan’s murderer and later seduced by Antonio in order to blackmail Pablo. When she realizes that she was taken advantage of, she’s devastated.

The characters in Almodóvar’s film are driven by their desire to be loved. We know from the beginning that Law of Desire will end badly because melodrama is tragic by design. When we watch melodramas, we know that the characters are going to suffer because they desire the unattainable. Ada gets abandoned by her biological mother. Tina wants a loving partner but instead gets sexually abused by her father and taken advantage of by every person she’s been with since. Juan wants Pablo but dies thinking that Pablo is no longer interested in him. Antonio wants Pablo but resorts to suicide when his crimes are uncovered by the police. Pablo wants to be loved intensely, but once he realizes that no one will ever desire him like Antonio does, it’s too late. Although the nuclear family at the center of the film defeats the killer and winds up intact, the movie ends on a melancholy note because no one gets what they want.

This complexity doesn’t stop at the script. In her book, Hayward attributes the genre’s “high investment” of mise-en-scène to multiple factors—the most pertinent here being Hays Code-era censorship. This prohibition of profanity, violence, and sexual intimacy had classic Hollywood resorting to elaborate set décor to transmit meaning. The medium is also the message for Almodóvar, with maximalist color, framing, and production design being as essential to his storytelling as his intricate narratives. Although it may not be the most aesthetically accomplished entry in his body of work, the director’s trademark vibrancy is very much reflected in Law of Desire’s dramatic compositions: birds-eye shots, excessive mirrors, faces obfuscated by gates and barriers, and scenes modeled after the work of Edward Hopper. One of the film’s most famous shots recreates his iconic Nighthawks painting to evoke a poignancy similar to that of Hopper’s solitary storefront, depicting characters who are lonely but still have each other to come home to at the end of the day.

Like much of the film’s aesthetic appeal, Almodóvar’s creative choices regarding his characters transcend the text as well. Antonio Banderas plays Antonio with the intensity of a child experiencing his first love—and, frequently depicted wearing nothing except white briefs, Almodóvar writes and films him like one, too. In fact, his outer beauty and youthful naïveté almost trick you into thinking that he’s not at fault for the crimes he commits to be with the person he loves—however heinous they may be. Meanwhile, casting Carmen Maura as the protagonist’s trans sister and trans model Bibiana Fernández as Ada’s biological mother are a testament to the director’s playfulness behind the scenes and his understanding of gender and sexuality as a spectrum—as well as the trust he has in his actresses’ abilities to be convincing in their roles regardless of any social descriptors. 

And so, even when this over-abundance of storytelling results in something as convoluted as Law of Desire, one cannot help but admire the richness and attention to detail present in every written and technical component of its filmmaking. For a director who thrives on excess, each narrative and aesthetic choice has its own foundation.

In her book, Hayward argues that melodramas are said to appeal primarily to women for several reasons—among them, the fact that we like seeing the ideological contradictions between husbands and wives onscreen, with male characters being made to see the value in their domestic work. I’d add to this that the genre also appeals to queer people through its fixation on impossible love and longing. In her famous Sensual Cinema essay, writer-director Isabel Sandoval attributes this affinity to the structural forces that oppress us.

“Films about desire by women and queer filmmakers end up being more sensual than otherwise, especially when the expression of such desires is muzzled in patriarchal societies,” she writes. “Eroticism is informed as much by the context…and subtext…as the text.” 

You could gesture towards Almodóvar’s entire filmography as an example of this. From What Have I Done To Deserve This? (1984) to Volver (2006), one of the most celebrated aspects of his filmmaking is his multifaceted portrayals of working class women, whether they provide for the household, do the domestic work, or both. And of course, all of his films are queer in some capacity. But another factor that Hayward attributes to women’s love for melodramas is the pleasure we derive from seeing ourselves onscreen, even when these films don’t have a happy ending. This last point, I think, is particularly important, especially as it relates not just to the appeal of Almodóvar’s work but also the importance of it. 

A short time ago, I got to interview some filmmakers in Miami for a journalism assignment I was doing on Pass the Mic, an initiative that involved funding three short films spotlighting a form of community organizing in the city. One of the questions I asked everyone was: how are local artists and arts initiatives important to communities as opposed to studio projects with extracted storytelling? 

It’s through this project that I met Ron, whose short documentary—Apart < A part, about gentrification in Allapattah, a local community made up mostly of Dominican immigrants—was produced through this initiative. Our conversation evolved into an illuminating discussion about the accessibility of art.

“For people to see themselves as equally important to all these other things that are glorified by these large, Western capitalistic societies,” he told me, “it highlights that dignity that is often ignored and puts it up front; their dignity matters, their stories matter, and so on. But there’s also this interesting kind of conflict.”

He went on: “My family in D.R. is going to sit around and drink beer and tell stories, whether [people] pay attention to them or not. If [they] don’t pay attention, that’s really their loss. Like, you’re missing out on some brilliant storytelling and some really interesting things that are exchanged, and some really fantastic intellect that occurs in this kind of space…You have the privilege of being able to try and access that.”

This stuck with me because while surface-level discussions about onscreen representation are common everywhere from Hollywood roundtables to social media discourse these days, they often miss the point.

It really shouldn’t be a matter of people ‘deserving’ to see themselves onscreen, or getting recognized by prestigious institutions. As well-meaning as some of these discussions are, there comes a point where they become infantilizing to the communities they’re meant to benefit. The same way you don’t need to look to Disney or Netflix to find rich stories about immigrants in present-day US because they’re already being told on a smaller scale, Almodóvar had been telling stories about gay and trans people in Francoist Spain way before the world took notice with Law of Desire, and sturdier films like Women on the Verge and All About My Mother. (That’s not to say that the latter two aren’t still groundbreaking in their own right.)

Almodóvar didn’t start by making films for everyone. His debut feature, Pepi, Luci, Bom (1980), was shot in popular scene hangouts, and featured things like drag performances and (literal) dick-measuring contests between gay men. It wasn’t meant to be tasteful, to appeal to the masses, or to erase any stigmas associated with the LGBTQ+ community, because it was made for women and the LGBTQ+ community. The mere existence of Pepi, Luci, Bom—which dealt farcically with subjects like abuse, misogyny, and sexual assault—was revolutionary at the time of its release. Any amount of transgression registered as meaningful following a three-and-a-half-decade dictatorship that suppressed all freedom of expression.

I don’t know if Law of Desire was ever meant to garner the reputation that it did, but I’m glad it exists. Provocation put Almodóvar on the map, even if the greater transgression of both previous and future films by the director make Law of Desire more accessible by comparison. This combination of both factors might make his formative film less interesting than so many others in his canon, but every enfant terrible has to grow up at some point. There comes a time in every provocateur’s life where they realize that telling sincere stories about, and especially for, your own community is important. In that sense, Law of Desire might just be one of the most important films ever made.