Labyrinth of Passion (1982) B
Made in 1982, “Labyrinth of Passion” Almodovar’s second film, was released in the U.S. in 1990, after the commercial success of “Women on the Verge of Nervous Breakdown.” A screwball comedy about the new Madrid life, “Labyrinth of Passion” tells an outrageous plot, full of outlandish twists and turns, but on a more serious level, it offers a critique of dominant culture’s definition of love.
The great Argentinean actress Cecilia Roth plays Sexilia (Sexi for short), a carefree nymphomaniac whose father (Luis Ciges) is a world-famous fertility specialist. Hoping to exorcise her fear of sunlight, Sexi consults a therapist who determines that her chief problems stem from incestuous attraction to her father.
The therapist then confesses her own decision to seduce the fertility expert, whose patients include the manipulative and aristocratic Toraya (Helga Line). Toraya, in turn, has set her eyes on Riza Niro (Imanol Aria), the gay son of the deposed ruler of the Arab nation Tyran.
Riza just wants to cruise the Spanish bars and docs incognito, but he has difficulty maintaining a low profile, let alone anonymity. Indeed, there are scandalous reports about Riza’s activities, and soon, revolutionary student terrorists plan to kidnap him. Meanwhile, Toraya wishes to seduce him in order to avenge herself on his father. Unaware of these designs, Riza meets Sexi in a disco, and they fall madly in love. Predictably, though, the course of their love is not smooth (It never is in Almodovar’s work).
“Labyrinth of Passion” offers a rich sexual landscape, erotic possibilities that go beyond conventional labels of what’s gay, straight, or permissible. The picture catalogues a wide variety of sexual desires. In a nonjudgmental way, Almodovar (who appears in a cameo as a leather-jacketed transvestite rock singer) includes older and younger, fat and thin, beautiful and homely figures. He then pairs them off and breaks them up according to whimsical plans, with little attention to conventional notions of age and physical appearance. In the end, an optimistic message is delivered with sharp satirical bite.
In “Labyrinth of Passion,” Almodovar deals with incest, drugs, sexual orgies, and other shocking habits, demonstrating skills in treating offensive material with vivid color and cartoonish abandon that tend to make them less radical, if not non- offensive.
Consider the scene in which a drag queen, chest made up to look bloodily butchered, looks at the nasty drill hovering over him, before uttering, “I deserve it, I’m so bad, I’m wicked,” with deadpan boredom, while a photographer takes pictures of the site. Or the middle-aged laundry proprietor, who takes sexual potency infusions before tying up and raping his daughter—albeit with tenderness. When she’s not secretly squirting her lusty Dad’s tea with sex-diminishing drops, she devises ways to battle weak fingernails and dry lips.
The movie shows the colorfully “aberrant” inhabitants of Madrid’s depraved, soap-operatic world of street queens, exiled princes, transvestite punks, sensitive nymphomaniacs, and angry terrorists, all trying to enjoy a fleeting sexual gratification, situated between the end of Franco’s authoritarian regime and the onset of the AIDS era.
There is no underlying logic to the convoluted narrative, suitably titled “Labyrinth of Passion,” other than the wish to subvert conventionally accepted norms. How else can you explain the true love between Riza, the gay son of an exiled Mideast emperor, and Sexi, the frustrated nymphomaniac. “I went to an orgy,” Sexi tells Riza after meeting him. “I couldn’t stop thinking of you.”
In the context of Almodovar’s subsequent, more assured works, “Labyrinth of Passion” feels like a dress rehearsal, but at the time, the movie contained enough funny and poignant moments to shock its viewers, while simultaneously entertaining them.
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