The Law of Desire (1987) is Almodovar’s first full-fledged masterpiece — a bold, daring work that is as shocking and impressive today as it was nearly 20 years ago when it was first released. It also offers the sense of being the filmmaker’s most personal film, since its protagonist, Pablo Quintero (Eusebio Poncela), is, like Almodovar, an unabashedly gay filmmaker. The fact that Almodovar’s admittedly autobiographical 2004 film, Bad Education, uses a similar approach in characterization and, even, story strengthens the case, but The Law of Desire is a far more fantasticated work that is quite different in tone. At bottom, it’s a less reflective film, which also makes it more fun.
The plotting is outrageous, centering on Pablo’s flamboyant lifestyle and his inability to deal with a bad relationship with a young man, Juan (Miguel Molina), who can neither deal with being Pablo’s lover, nor with walking away from him. Complications arise in the form of Antonio Benitez (Antonio Banderas), a star-struck, mother-repressed young man, who falls in love with Pablo and becomes dangerously possessive. (Ironically, part of his jealousy of Juan comes from having read a letter “from” Juan that was actually written by Pablo as the kind of letter he wants Juan to write to him.) It is impossible to detail the plot in the space allotted here — the plot also concerns Pablo’s transsexual sister, Tina (Carmen Maura), who becomes embroiled in Antonio’s convoluted pursuit of Pablo.
By turns the film is funny, tragic and deeply perceptive. In some ways, it’s an extension of ideas found in Matador (1986), but it also looks forward to Almodovar’s subsequent work (Bad Education makes an excellent companion piece) — perhaps proving that true auteurs make less a series of independent works than they make one long film connected over time. A film not to be missed.