In La Ley del Deseo (Law of Desire), Pedro Almodovar explores complex gender and sexuality issues within the broader context of the theme of desire. Pablo Quintero (played by Eusebio Poncela) is an object of desire whose sexual power over Antonio (played by Antonio Banderas) leads to a string of unfortunate events. Antonio is madly in love with Pablo, a Madrileno filmmaker who happens to be also -- albeit less madly -- in love with the emotionally distant and unavailable Juan. Complicating the love triangle is Tina (played by Carmen Muara) who falls in love with Antonio by the end of the film. However, Tina is trans-gender and trans-sexual. Her gender performativity is one of the highlights and features of the film, which explores desire explicitly through the lens of homosexuality. Almodovar's film does, however, depict human desire in a more general and universal way. Desire is a force of incredible passion and creativity, motiving the likes of Pablo to titillate audiences with his films. The desire for acceptance, love, and approval are also forces for personal transformation and identity construction. For example, Tina might not have delved as deep into the murky waters of gender identity had it not been for her keen desire for her father. Desire also has the positive effect of deepening emotional ties and strengthening spiritual bonds between people, if they can elevate desire beyond its destructive capacity. Almodovar more adroitly reveals the downside of desire in Law of Desire. Once Antonio can fulfill his emotional need to be with Pablo, he annihilates himself. Desire led to his suicide and to a murder: as Almodovar explores the most extreme effects of desire left unchecked. The Law of Desire is a deep paradox of human existence. Desire is the meat of life without which human beings would not exist; but desire also destroys the hearts, minds, and bodies of human beings. Even if the fulfillment of desire brings plump, passionate pleasure, a frustrated unfulfilled desire delivers the deepest type of pain imaginable to any human being.
In "Pleasure and the New Spanish Mentality: A Conversation with Pedro Almodovar," Marsha Kinder calls the emergence of Pedro Almodovar on the film circuit a watershed moment in European film history because of the uniquely Spanish stamp the director places on his films. Desire is a running theme throughout all of Almodovar's movies. The filmmaker is obsessed enough with the theme of human desire that he has named his production company El Deseo. What initially draws attention to Almodovar films like The Law of Desire is that the themes are at once universal, but also expressed with particular beauty and realism through the lens of Spanish culture. As Kinder puts it, The Law of Desire is "eminently Spanish" but also "comprehensible to any person," and therefore has a universal appeal (33). The same can also be said for the universal themes contained in The Law of Desire related to human sexuality and longing; for it matters not that all the main characters are homosexual, bisexual, or transgender. Their desires, faults, and strengths of character are all human. Homosexuality is a detail, a flourish, and even a poignant literary technique that helps the film appeal to a wide and diverse audience. Almodovar does not limit himself as a director-writer-producer, either. The filmmaker also imbues some, if not most, of his productions with deep social and political commentary.
The commentary in The Law of Desire is more about the human condition than about political realities. Almodovar is not making a statement about heteronormativity, although such a statement could be read into the lines of The Law of Desire, and especially through the character of Tina. Identity and social psychological issues such as gender performativity and sexual orientation are almost taken for granted in The Law of Desire, which presumes its audience is mature enough to reap the universal truths from the film without becoming bogged down in its implications so far as homophobia are concerned. As Kinder points out, Almodovar's film is quintessentially Spanish because of the paradoxical relationship between Spanish romantic ethos and Spanish gender norms and social roles.
As a tragic drama, classic in its depiction of central characters and heroes, The Law of Desire can be accepted as an unabashed "melodrama," and Almodovar does not hide from the designation. A film about desire cannot be without melodrama, for desire and melodrama are bedfellows. The Law of Desire as a text represents gendered identities in drama, as if the film itself becomes a performativity of gender because of its melodramatic format. As Maddison points out, Almodovar has been received as a "woman's director," as it is presumed his films do not attract a heterosexual male audience (265). Calling Almodovar a "woman's director" presumes a gendered performance among heterosexual males that is predicated on a lack of appreciation for themes of desire. The heterosexual male perhaps prefers action movies; but there is plenty of action in The Law of Desire. It can also be assumed that Amodovar's "female identification" is linked to the filmmaker's exploration of gay themes, gender themes, and themes related to the interplay of gender, identity, and sexuality (Maddison 265). Because The Law of Desire is a relationship-driven melodrama, it reads as a "female" or "feminine" text and thus exemplifies gender performativity on a meta-conceptual and paradigmatic way.
Desire is what drives The Law of Desire and makes the film a critical commentary on the universal experience. Its critique of gender performativity in the dominant culture is ironic. Maddison writes, "it is clearly to gross an simplification to suggest that transgendered identities are appropriating gay performances of gender; nevertheless, this may be a moment for considering the extent to which possibilities for specifically gendered resistance persist in gay culture," (265).
The Law of Desire is about gay culture per se; it is about the law of desire as it moves and motivates the human spirit to do strange and deviant things. Pablo's desire for Juan becomes an ironically deviant act, as he lusts after that which he cannot have, and what he cannot have is heteronormativity. Juan represents that heteronormativity. When Antonio rapes Juan, it is an expression of Antonio's need to have control over his own desire. Antonio cannot live without the reciprocation of love from the object of his desire, his presumed soul mate, Pablo. The rape is a passionate act of anger and self-expression that symbolizes the desire to destroy that which would come in the way of self-fulfillment and pleasure. Antonio is all the more angry that Pablo's object of affection is straight; if Juan were gay it is likely Antonio would have accepted his loss and moved on. The fact that Juan is straight makes him an unacceptable foe. By raping Juan, Antonio imbues Juan with conflicted gender performances. Juan assumes the stereotypically "female" position of subordination and is the victim of male hegemony. As the object of male desire, Juan is also feminized. Ironically, Antonio's submission to Pablo during their initial fling feminizes him in the discourse of gender performativity in the bedroom. Antonio reasserts his masculinity in a complex acting out of gender roles and sexual desires.
As Smith puts it, Almodovar succeeds in "de-sexing" homosexuality in a paradoxical way, by revealing that sexuality as a universal force can be too psychically intense for the passionate human being to handle (Smith 81). Almodovar as a "woman's director" plays upon the gender performativity inherent in traditional sex roles and roles in the seduction play. Women are typically defined by their passive role in the sex play. They are objects for male predators, who endeavor to seduce and therefore have power over their pray. In The Object of Desire, males play into the traditionally female role. Juan is cast this way in his relationship to Pablo.
Tina's position is also complex and conflicted. She was born male, but rejected the performance of male gender and its masculine expressions. Instead, Tina opts to perform femininity and alters her body to boot. After living her life as a female who desires men, Tina is rejected by the object of her deviant desire -- her father. Just as Antonio could not handle rejection by the object of one's desire, Tina also turned her anger inward and rejected all affection from men. Tina later develops a relationship with Antonio. The relationship between Tina and Antonio reveals the superficiality of gender identity, gender norms, and gender performativity. Tina and Antonio are tow individuals whose desire for other people have left their souls scarred and their psyches craving for affection.
Antonio and Tina reveal what Maddison refers to as "third sex models" (265). "Third sex models were among the first narratives we produced of ourselves, and they remain crucial to a whole range of cultural and political articulations for gay men and for lesbians," (Maddison 265). As they play with their own gendered identities and performances, Antonio and Tina are third sexes whose lives are decidedly liminal. Especially…