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‘Labyrinth of Passion’ (NR)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 20, 1990

Pedro Almodovar is in the middle of an entertainingly provocative career, in which he has been consistently bumping and grinding against taboos with the inspired relish of a burlesque queen thrusting herself at a row of open-mouthed tourists.

In "Labyrinth of Passion," a new release of a 1982 movie, you can see the flamboyant Spanish director working out the vampy bugs, as he wiggles and jiggles his way around incest, drug-taking, sexual orgies and a shockable host of other no-nos. Even in this early, clearly experimental film, Almodovar (who has a cameo as a leather-jacketed transvestite rock singer) has already learned (somewhat) how to pull off such a difficult act, by treating the potentially offensive with such cartoonish abandon that it becomes ridiculous to take offense.

Consider the scene in which a drag queen, his chest made up to look bloodily butchered, leers at the nasty drill hovering over him and utters masochistic banalities ("I deserve it, I'm so bad, I'm wicked") with deadpan boredom while a photographer clicks away; or the middle-aged laundry proprietor who regularly takes sexual potency infusions before good-naturedly, even tenderly tying down and raping his daughter. When she's not secretly squirting lusty Dad's tea with sex-diminisher drops, her passion is in devising ways to battle weak fingernails and dry lips.

These are just three of the aberrant inhabitants in Almodovar's early '80s Madrid, a depraved, soap-operatic world of street queens, exiled princes, transvestite punks, artificial-insemination doctors, sensitive nymphos, mourning psychos and angry terrorists, who are enjoying (or desperately trying to enjoy) a tiny golden period of sexual adventurousness between the dissolution of Franco's authoritarian regime and the onset of AIDS consciousness.

There is really no underlying rhyme or reason to the narratively convoluted, appropriately titled "Labyrinth," just a chance for Almodovar to play with attitude, while Riza, the gay, cruising son of an exiled Mideast emperor, and a frustrated nymphomaniac called Sexilia ultimately find true love.

"I went to an orgy," Sexilia tells Riza not long after meeting him. "I couldn't stop thinking of you."

In light of Almodovar's subsequent, more assured works, from "Law of Desire" to "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," "Labyrinth" comes across as mere rehearsal. But for the right crowd, in the right frame of mind, this movie has more than its share of funny, even poignant moments.

LABYRINTH OF PASSION (Unrated) — In Spanish with subtitles.

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