The Spanish director Pedro Almodovar is like a crazy-man archer with a quiver full of bent arrows. His stories, and his characters, refuse to fly straight. In his new movie, "Law of Desire," the people are deliriously self-absorbed. They're all lunatic romantics -- hilariously love-crazed. And the greatest pleasures in the movie come from following them down the peculiar roads that their hyperactive emotions take.
That's where the comedy comes from, too. "Law of Desire" is like a soap opera for after-hours when all the crazy sexiness and jealousy that have to be hedged during prime-time can explode right out in the open. It's a skewed homosexual melodrama about jealousy and murder and obsessive love. Basically the themes are the same as those the hard-boiled writer James M. Cain socked into his fiction, and like Cain, Almodovar loves sloppy romantic triangles. But Cain was never this polymorphously hedonistic. Almodovar doesn't boil things down; he lets them boil over.
The lives of his characters are impossibly complicated. But you get the feeling that this is the way they like it, that these are people who thrive on histrionics and florid self-dramatization. Without their precious chaos, they'd be lost.
The central character, Pablo (Eusebio Poncela), is a successful director of artistically upscale pornographic movies -- movies with titles like "The Paradigm of the Clam" and "Halitosis." Pablo's life is compact, comfortable. In Madrid, where the movie takes place, he's a respected artist, but his celebrity status doesn't appear to make much difference to Juan (Miguel Molina), a tousle-haired working-class lad who loves Pablo, but not enough to settle down with him. (He seems not to have completely decided which gender he's more attracted to.) The complications begin for Pablo when, after Juan leaves on holiday, he takes up with Antonio (Antonio Banderas), the young son of a government minister who becomes psychotically jealous of the director's relationship with Juan and plots to eliminate him from Pablo's life.
To the extent that it's about a pickup that turns sour, "Law of Desire" is a kind of gay "Fatal Attraction." But that's only a sliver of the film's story. Also, Almodovar isn't interested in laying out a cautionary message; he's much too unapologetically pleasure-centered for that. Almodovar's complete sexual laconism -- his lack of attitudinizing or moralizing -- is part of what makes the film so original and so entertaining.
Almodovar also has a talent for concocting wickedly baroque pulp narratives. And Angel Fernandez's cinematography makes everything look sunny and lush and full of pop vitality. Almodovar, whose other credits include "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" and the upcoming "Matador," is a filmmaker with a natural flair for sensual film imagery; his movies have the lurid vivacity of paintings on velvet. And the tone is campy, but Almodovar never goes over the top. He works within the camp esthetic -- as an advocate of camp as a world view -- and so condescension never creeps into his view of his characters.
The film's most tantalizing personality is Pablo's sister Tina (Carmen Maura), a flame-on redhead who acts in her brother's films. With her spike heels and neon minis, Tina is sort of a cross between Carmen Miranda and Bette Midler. (She has Midler's piston-driven waddle.) Tina, a transsexual who changed her sex as a teen-ager to please her father after running away with him to Morocco, isn't at the center of the film's action, but she's the perfect expression of the director's feel for sexual exoticism.
Tina is all raw animal femininity. As Maura plays her, Tina's almost a parody of voluptuous, nurturing womanliness and emotionalism. She even has living with her a little girl, Ada (Manuela Velasco), whom she is raising but who is really the daughter of her darkly elegant lesbian lover (Bibi Andersen, who, incidentally, is a man).
It's the film's ripest joke that Tina, who started out life as a man, is so dynamically feminine. Antonio's love for Pablo is a crazy, passionate and surprisingly moving joke, too. When, after being cornered by the police for Juan's murder, he promises to release his hostages in exchange for an hour alone with Pablo, the older man acquiesces without hesitation. He's impressed, and touched, by the boy's impetuous, fervid love, regardless of how wrongheaded it is. At least he's capable of loving deeply -- deeply enough to commit murder. And in Almodovar's world this rates as something big, something cherishable.
Law of Desire, at the Circle West End 4-5-6, is unrated and contains scenes of graphic sexuality, adult language and some violence.