At the outset of every relationship, he who is least attracted/into it starts with the upper hand. It is a simple mathematical formula for enchantment that has proven true for so many illustrious couples–from Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn to Don Draper and Betty Hofstadt. The same goes for Ricky (Antonio Banderas) and Marina (Victoria Abril) in Pedro Almodóvar’s 1990 film, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, the title of which references the inevitable feeling of being chained to someone for life thanks to the confines of monogamy. Except, in Marina’s case, it’s more literal than metaphorical as Ricky, a 23-year-old who has been in mental institutions for most of his life, is released after making it his mission to seek out Marina, an actress/former porn star who has just wrapped shooting a film for a typically lecherous director named Máximo Espejo (Francisco Ribal). Upon encountering her before during one of the times he escaped from the loony bin, Ricky has since meticulously planned how to get Marina to love him, stalking her on the set with a wig on after the aging female director of the hospital (particularly fond of him because, well, he’s pleasured her all these years) gives him 50,000 pesetas to survive on until he figures out a job situation. Armed with the cash and pure obsession, Ricky first goes to a shop to buy a heart filled with chocolates, gets on the bus outside and reads a magazine featuring Madonna on the cover (it bears noting that Miramax, the American distributor of Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! had major issues when the MPAA slapped it with an “X” rating–back when that was still a thing. Miramax also distributed Madonna’s 1991 documentary, Truth or Dare, in which both Almodóvar and Banderas make cameos).
This sequence of shots, so perfectly and symmetrically framed by Almodóvar, mirrors just how precise Ricky himself has been in his machinations. As he later informs Marina, “I had to kidnap you so you’d get to know me. I’m sure you’ll get to love me as I love you.” This certainty on Ricky’s part only repels Marina all the more, already aggravated by a toothache–one made worse when Ricky smacks her. As a former heroin addict (porn star, remember?), Marina tells him that painkillers have no effect on her. Feeling sympathetic as it’s his fault her toothache has worsened, Ricky agrees to take her to her doctor down the street. Handcuffed together, the imagery of ties that bind pervades Almodóvar’s commentary about the nature of romantic love and monogamy, heightened in this screwball comedy meets horror movie way thanks to his perspective on heterosexual relationships as a gay man. In all regards, Almodóvar is parodying the manner and trajectory of the male and female rapport: 1) the man pursues 2) the woman denies 3) the man continues to pursue, eventually wearing her down 4) the man now holds all the cards. Indeed, upon first sequestering Marina in her apartment, Ricky states, “I’m 23 years old, I have 50,000 pesetas, and I’m alone in the world. I’ll try to be a good husband to you and a good father to your children.” His open declaration and profession of eternal devotion is what alienates Marina perhaps even more than being taken as his captive. It is only when he starts figuratively and actually loosening the ties that Marina begins to warm to him, Stockholm syndrome be damned.
The theme of straight love being a contrivance of conditioning isn’t all Almodóvar touches on in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! He also throws massive shade at Germany–up to that point the European audience least accepting of his work–by featuring a commercial about how Germans are able to enjoy their lives in retirement because they plan for it (while apparently wearing Nazi uniforms). Spaniards, on the other hand, only live for the short-term, fucking off while tangoing, etc.
Well-accustomed to criticism for what Americans of the time would have called oversexed and scandalous scenes (Almodóvar is ever so fond of tiny men entering women’s vaginas [see: Talk to Her] as well), Almodóvar amplifies the eventual consummation of Ricky and Marina’s love by prolonging it in arguably his most naturalistic sex scene. Their love cemented through this physical expression, Ricky at last disproves Marina’s vehement belief that she will never love him. So hey, if you really love someone, don’t set them free.