Judge Daryl Loomis is pretty sure there wasn't a single tie in this movie.
I have nothing, so I have nothing to lose.
I remember the first time I saw Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! It was a late night showing at a place called the Bijou where I grew up, the second in a double-bill that began with the totally incongruous Romper Stomper. Outside of the fact that they were both relatively new at the time, I have no idea why they ran together, but what a four hours for a teenager, and barely one at that. This, of course, is just one more example of how I jaded myself as a youth and while true, isn't the point. The point is that I fell madly in love with Pedro Almodóvar (Matador) late that night and started devouring all his early work. Now, of course, the director is one of the most recognizable foreign directors of the last few decades, and his movies are much different than they were in those days (with the notable exception of his latest, I'm So Excited!, but that felt very deliberate), but he's only gotten more skilled over the years. So let's look back to 1989 and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, looking more beautiful today on Blu-ray than it has since I first snuck into it all those years ago.
Facts of the Case
Ricky (Antonio Banderas, The Skin I Live In) has just been released from a mental institution with nothing but the clothes on his back and an envelope of money from his psychiatrist for years of "services rendered." He's free, but has no life, no family, and no home. But he does have an obsession. After a casual encounter with porn star/junkie-turned-legit actress/junkie Marina Osorio (Victoria Abril, The Moon in the Gutter), she's all he can think about. So pretending to be a worker on set, he steals Maria's keys and follows her home, where he kidnaps her until she falls in love with him, which he is totally sure will happen. Unlikely as it sounds, not long after, her heart starts to melt, but as a relationship blossoms, her friends and family have become desperate to find her.
Despite having an international hit with his previous film, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Almodóvar go no love from the MPAA upon release of Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! It was initially saddled with the dreaded "X" label, though that was softened a little bit by the inception of the slightly less dreaded "NC-17," but that didn't help it reach mainstream theaters. I mean, Victoria Abril does appear to enjoy having sex, so I guess it deserved it. This isn't meant to be another needing rant against the MPAA, just that upon release, far fewer people were able to see this colorful, hilarious, creepy movie that should have.
Really, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is a celebration, though it might not all be of palatable things that people are inclined to celebrate. Its sexual content gave the movie its rating, but it's the focus on Marina's Stockholm Syndrome that gave the movie its controversy. It doesn't bother me, but it does a lot of people when it was released, and still does today to a certain extent.
That's because Almodóvar did his job in the characterization of Ricky. In most every way, he's awful. While one can claim that he never actually rapes Marina, he does keep her bound until her affections are basically in the bag. The thing is that, at the same time, Ricky's a totally likeable character. He should be condemned, yet we root for him almost the whole way.
As much credit has to go to Banderas as the director for his portrayal of the character. He's been linked to Almodóvar his entire career, but it was here that people truly saw what he had to offer. He's funny, sympathetic, and charming and the American public ate it up, at least after this movie. Victoria Abril is equally good as Marina, though her role is a little more thankless. Even though she's a tied up, kidnapped junkie, she never seems weak and there are times when, even though there's clearly Stockholm Syndrome business going on, that she's the one whose actually in charge.
With fine performances from Almodóvar regulars like Loles León (Talk to Her) and Rossy de Palma (The Flower of My Secret), gorgeous cinematography by José Luis Alcaine (The Skin I Live In) and a surprising score by Ennio Morricone (The Mission), Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is a fantastically fun time. It might rub some people the wrong way even to this day, but that's what Almodóvar was going for at this point in his career, so mission accomplished.
Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down represents another shining light for the Criterion Collection, with a gorgeous Blu-ray package. The 1.85:1/1080p transfer gives it the bright color saturation that the movie requires. I've never seen it look this bright and clean before; the colors, especially the heavily employed shades of red, just pop off the screen, and really just emphasize how gorgeous the film looks. The detail and depth are both fantastic, and there are no traces of digital hocus-pocus or damage anywhere to be found.
The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is equally sharp, though maybe not as flashy as the picture. The difference between this release and earlier versions is massive, with excellent sound separation throughout the spectrum. The space between the dialog and the music is always clear and neither ever muffles the other, and the whole mix is incredibly clean and bright.
The supplements aren't as numerous as some Criterion releases, but the slate is still strong.
• United! Reflections on Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!—a brand new 29-minute documentary featuring modern interviews with Almodóvar, the primary cast and crew, and many of the Almodóvar stable actors who make small appearances here. It covers the inception of the movie (very different than the final product), its controversy, and the artistry behind it. Excellent stuff.
• Pedro and Antonio—this 27-minute conversation between Almodóvar and Banderas was filmed in 2003, but is no less relevant. They are clearly close friends and have a lively, informative discussion about the movie's themes and the massive success that Banderas and Almodóvar separately enjoyed after the movie's release.
• Michael Barker—another excellent interview, this time running 15 minutes, with Michael Barker, co-founder of Sony Pictures Classics, whose old company was the group that brought Women on the Verge to the US, and has maintained a personal and professional relationship with the director ever since. Very informative about the back end distribution stuff that you don't ordinarily get to hear.
• Resistire—Here we have archival footage from the film's premiere of the cast performing the awesome Spanish version of "I Will Survive," featured brilliantly in the movie. Silly, but fun.
• A trailer, standard def DVD copy, and the customary booklet featuring essays and further interviews are also included.
Today, people may look at Pedro Almodóvar as the kind of foreign director whose movies American audiences love to watch. That may be true, but it would take All About My Mother and Volver for him to get there. In 1989, though, he was still the enfant terrible of international cinema with a hit under his belt and a bunch of taboos to break. However, between Women on the Verge and Tie Me Up!, he proved how much more talent he had beyond that, even if people of the day had a hard time seeing it yet. This is my favorite work in Almodóvar's career and I am ultimately thrilled with the presentation from Criterion. Even today, the movie isn't for everyone, I suppose, but I guarantee you'll never look at your bath toys the same way again.
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