Every so often, a film arrives (usually from Europe) that's so politically incorrect it's downright chic. Pedro Almodóvar's Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! has the kind of retro-sexist hook that can seem outrageous and provocative. Enlightened audiences may go for it precisely because they'll have to do ideological somersaults to justify it.
The movie is really just a two-character chamber drama drenched in languid mock romanticism. Ricky (Antonio Banderas) is a 23-year-old punk stud who grew up in a mental institution and now has been declared fit for society. The moment he's released, he seeks out his true love: Marina (Victoria Abril), an actress and junkie with whom he had a one-night stand during a brief escape attempt. She, it turns out, doesn't even remember him.
Faced with the cold shoulder, Ricky busts into Marina's apartment, slaps her around, and makes her his prisoner. How? Whenever he has to leave, he takes out a roll of rope and binds her smooth, bronze limbs to the bed. Throughout the movie, Almodóvar gives us variations on this primal scene of ritual bondage. Usually, it's accompanied by Burt Bacharach-style soft trumpets and strings a sign that what's going on isn't nearly as nasty as it appears.
Ricky is no run-of-the-mill brute. He's gentle and protective, traipsing into the night to buy or steal drugs for his beloved, even if that means getting beaten up, and enduring Herculean levels of self-denial so as not to take advantage of her sexually. He's waiting until she's ready for him.
Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is an ironically gentle S&M comedy about (quite literally) the ties that bind. Ricky's ''kidnapping'' of Marina is both cruel and an ultimate act of obsessive adoration. Their relationship is presented as a larger-than-life parody of the mating dance, and Almodóvar observes it with his usual heavy-lidded wink. We're meant to see that Marina, seduced by Ricky's caveman tactics, is giving in to what she wanted all along.
There are two sides to Almodóvar: He has his carnival-showman, lapsed-Catholic glee, and also an undertow of depressive moodiness that's what gives his films their flat affect. Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! isn't a brightly colored jamboree, like the 1988 Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. It grows out of the same mood of somber fetishism that marked his earlier Law of Desire and Matador. The difference is that now, having achieved international success, Almodovar appears to be calculating new ways to shock and titillate us.
There's something stiff and inorganic about Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! Almodóvar gooses the action along with rude bits of comedy, yet most of the movie feels as though it were being acted out by automatons. As Ricky, Antonio Banderas is volatile yet opaque, with the dashing blandness of a beefcake pin- up boy. And Victoria Abril is done in by too many scenes of exasperated suffering.
So what does the movie have going for it? Simply that Almodóvar has been canny about exploiting the disreputability of his premise. He serves up metaphoric bondage with a knowing shrug and passes it off as art. This is exactly what Lina Wertmuller did in the late-'70s art-house fave Swept Away, which presented rape and old-fashioned female servitude archly, as a twisted form of liberation. Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is Swept Away without the shrillness and Marxism.
In an era of blurred sex roles, when both men and women are desperate to know whether to be more aggressive or passive within courtship rituals, this sort of thing can have a simplistic, clarifying appeal. On the other hand, it may be time Almodóvar was liberated from his own camp posturing. Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is seamlessly crafted yet too self-conscious to be much fun. It's the characters' emotions that seem in bondage.