Girl Meets Context: We continue Erotic Thriller month with an unconventional choice: Pedro Almodóvar’s strange tale of captivity, obsession, sex and movie-making. Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is about Marina (Victoria Abril) a former drug addict/porn star who is wrapping up production on a horror movie called The Midnight Phantom when she is abducted by Ricky (Antonio Banderas), an obsessed fan who had a one-night stand with her years before. Ricky has just been released from a mental institution. He ties Marina up in her apartment and tells her that he is going to force her to fall in love with him, marry him and have his children. And if that doesn’t happen, he’ll just kill her. In typical Almodóvar style, the power dynamics between the two shift and strain, leading to an off-kilter conclusion that binds Ricky and Marina together for life. The movie uses many of the tropes of horror cinema and references specific genre classics in exploring the relationship between the characters. Be forewarned, our discussion will include massive SPOILERS, so go watch the movie on Netflix Instant and come back!
Sean: I want to start off by saying: Obviously this isn’t a straight -up horror movie, but…. I believe it totally belongs on the blog. Am I wrong?
Kristine: I loved watching it but I think you need to defend your decision. I WILL say it meets the criteria of… a girl meets a freak!
Sean: Well, I want to first state the caveat that any Hitchcock or Almodóvar movie can be on the blog, according to me. But even without that caveat, I think it should be a part of this project. I mean, the whole idea behind the blog is that it’s this big, ongoing conversation between us about horror movies. And Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is literally ABOUT horror movies. Horror is one of its primary subjects.And also, I actually believe it is covering the same ground as Daughters of Darkness, which is something I hope we’ll get to talk about.
Kristine: Tell me more…
Sean: Well, I think both movies are obviously about psychosexual horror more than violence or gore. And I think both films, in slightly different ways, offer up a critique of marriage and heteronormativity.
Kristine: I agree with that.
Sean: I think Almodóvar is actually always folding horror movie elements into his films, but this movie might be his most overt use of horror tropes (other than The Skin I Live In). The most obvious connection to the universe of horror movies is the fact that Marina is shooting a horror movie, The Midnight Phantom, at the beginning of the film. And also, the score for Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is done by Ennio Morricone. Morricone is most famous for scoring Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns, but he’s also well-known for having scored Dario Argento’s “Animal Trilogy” (which includes The Bird with the Crystal Plumage) and John Carpenter’s The Thing. And Morricone’s work in this movie references the Psycho score many times.
Kristine: I agree that the score is an obvious “horror movie” score, though I think it’s interesting how Almodóvar also places these diagetic songs into the movie that are NOT. Like the song Lola sings at the wrap party, or that ridiculous flamenco-scored commercial about how Germans are smart with their money and Spaniards are stupid, or the pop song everyone sings in the car at the end. But I’m actually not sure what to make of the Marina/Ricky relationship. Do you think it had “monstrous” elements like the Countess/Ilona or the Countess/Valerie or Valerie/Stefan in Daughters of Darkness? In that movie all the relationships seemed to be shot through with sadism and didn’t really have an “upside.” But here I think there is a distinct implication that when Marina falls for Ricky, she stops being addicted to self-destructive behavior (i.e. drugs).
Kristine: This is the truth. That is my read and I am CERTAIN it is correct!
Sean: It’s weird then, that he uses pills to get her “hooked” on him! I am not sure what to make of the ending. But I do think there’s lots of evidence that the horror this movie is investigating is that of being married and heteronormative. I personally think that for Almodóvar, the pill-popping free-wheeling life is PREFERABLE to the long, tedious monotony of marriage. I can cite my evidence if need be. The ending of the movie SEEMS happy – but I think it is meant to be viewed with irony. I don’t think that Marina will find happiness and sanctuary with Ricky, I don’t think they are driving off to a “happily ever after.” I think that their sexual chemistry will fade. One of the things the movie is telling us is that it is the excitement and intensity of true sexual chemistry that fools us into thinking that commitment, monogamy and marriage are even appealing.
Sean: But then it fades and dies!
Kristine: Well, I do agree that his plan for them – to have three children or “as many as is necessary” (necessary for what? for her to be totally dependent and trapped?) – was incredibly creepy.
Sean: Yes, heteronormativity IS the threat and IS the mental illness. I mean, look at how coercive that whole “master plan” of Ricky’s is!
Sean: Remember the melancholy sanitarium director at the beginning of the movie? She says “Being free means being alone.” I think right away, right in the first moment of the movie, the film is telling us the “truth” that it is going to bear out in example: that being with someone is shackling and entrapping (hence all the bondage imagery).
Kristine: I want to say that I find Almodóvar’s fascination with vaginas to be lovely and amazing. He seems truly enthralled. I am thinking of the scene with Marina and the submarine toy… it reminds me powerfully, of course, of the scene in Talk to Her where Benigno shrinks himself so he can jump into Alicia’s vagina so he can live there forever?
Kristine: Remember the Prince Charles scandal when he told Camilla he wished he was her tampon? Almodóvar is so great to his ladies.
Sean: That scene of Marina in the bathtub is SO important, because it lets us see how completely capable of sexual pleasure she is on her own. The narrative of her meeting Ricky is NOT about “discovering passion for the first time” or any bullshit like that.
Kristine: Exactly! Remember, she totally forgot that she slept with him before, a year ago??? For HIM it was this benchmark moment, not for her.
Sean: Yes. Then when they fuck, she remembers. The sex is the thing that intoxicates her and makes her believe in (or “love”) him. Almodóvar believes in the divine power of sexual pleasure (or at least his movies do).
Kristine: Well, yes, I know what you are saying… but don’t forget the REASON she beds him is because she is moved by his getting beaten up trying to score her drugs. There is SOME emotion there.
Sean: Oh, I completely believe there is emotion everywhere in this movie. But marriage is the long con, according to the film. That is what I believe.
Kristine: Fair enough! What is the significance of Night of the Living Dead being the movie Marina watches while Ricky is out scoring her drugs?
Sean: Hold on a sec. Remember Máximo the director’s old hag of a wife walking in on him masturbating to Marina’s porn video? The hag wife is like, “Do you want to play a board game or something?” and he is like “Get lost!”
Kristine: Yeah, that was sad for both parties.
Sean: THAT’s the end game of marriage. And remember when the propmaster is like, “We can’t get blood on the couch… the producer’s WIFE wants it.” Wives are nags. Married couples are insipid, disconnected. This actually leads right into your point about Night of the Living Dead playing on the television and the Invasion of the Body Snatchers poster that pops up a few times. Both those movies are about mass delusion! About the masses of society turning into brain-dead, shambling automatons following a prefabricated script of ‘instinctual’ behavior.
Kristine: I picture you standing up, fist raised above your head, spittle flying from mouth, hair wild, screaming at the masses: “You’re all sheep!”
Sean: According to this movie, it’s true!
Kristine: You need to start a free love cult.
Sean: All the heteronorms (meet-cute, get married, have babies, turn into dried up old people) are soulless creatures, according to this movie.
Kristine: Well, remember that Ricky is attracted to Marina because of her sexiness and “nice body” (as he says) and youth… but he wants her to pop out all these babies and basically has plans to de-sexify her and turn her into her own Spanish mom.
Sean: Yes, remember her mother?
Kristine: I mean, that woman looked 100 years older then Marina! Not, like 20 or 30 years…
Sean: Yes. She was…. desiccated, depleted.
Kristine: And cranky and nagging and only cared about making meals for her brood.
Kristine: And, don’t forget, was left by their father.
Sean: YES. Ricky even gets into all his scrapes with the drug dealers with his story about “my girlfriend has a toothache.” I repeat: “Being free means being alone.”
Kristine: You’re right, this is all Daughters of Darkness territory. You are very wise, Seanie. But Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is a much earthier movie, because it is interested in the story of, as you say, “the heteronorms.” It’s interested in the idea of getting hitched, having kids. And let’s face it, a lot of women have children and then feel a newfound sense of hostility towards their partner or feel just… trapped or de-sexed or de-fanged.
Sean: Ricky says to Marina: “I’ll untie you so you won’t think I enjoy making you suffer.” THOSE are the politics of heteronorm relationships. I mean, I don’t think this movie posits any kind of alternative. I don’t think this movie is interested in imagining what a queer option would look like, but other Almodóvar movies go further in doing that. It would be interesting to watch this next to Law of Desire or Bad Education, his movies that are actually about queer men. But even All About My Mother offers up some more interesting possibilities for women than some pre-destined heteronorm situation.
Kristine: I agree.
Sean: In Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, being “married” to someone is about suffering and being entangled and held in place, kept prisoner, enslaved. Becoming… a zombie or an alien clone. That’s why I think it’s so significant that Ricky’s plan is to force this narrative of marriage and child-bearing on Marina. She doesn’t realize it yet, but she’s now living in a horror movie, when before she was only acting in one. And in the fictional space of The Midnight Phantom, she was actually empowered and could say, “No!”
Kristine: Here is the weirdness. There is this huge lie that all these hetero marriages are held together because of real love. But, for example, people at work think it’s weird that I might marry my boyfriend, since we have no plans to procreate. They’re like, “Then why get married?” And I ask them, “Why did you get married?” And they’re answer is, “Love!” But that is obviously not the true answer. Part of the marriage contract, for a great majority of people, is child-bearing and procreation. To the point where they can’t even imagine lovers being united without any interest in making babies.
Sean: Zombies, I tell you! Pod people. Also… hence, homophobia. And sexist hatred of women who want to be key players in other kinds of stories, other than just child-bearing/child-raising stories. But this brings us to where I think the movie is incoherent..
Kristine: First acknoweldge that I am a maligned part of society!
Sean: You are TOTALLY MALIGNED. I think for as queer as Almodóvar is, I also think his films value the traditional family. That song that Lola and Ricky sing at the end in the car is all about persevering in the face of the onslaught of marriage and family obligation: “I will survive, I will be the reed that bends but does not break.” Though Marina does NOT join in at first and then sort of reluctantly gets swept up in the moment. I read a lot of ambivalence from her about that song. But I think Almodóvar MIGHT see marriage and normativity as some dumb beautiful sacrifice or something? I am not sure.
Kristine: I am not sure either. Remember the scene in her doctor’s apartment? When Ricky is threatening her and telling her that he will beat her and kill her if she gives up the jig? And then he is juggling the babies in front of her face and being like “See how cute they are!” And awesome Marina is like, “Um, no thanks.”
Sean: YES. The UGLY TWINS. The CORPULENT, SEEPING PROGENY.
Kristine: It is twisted. Like, David Lynch-style twisted.
Sean: See, moments like that make me really think Almodóvar intends this all as a farce, as a send-up.
Kristine: Right, but as you say, it is problematic.
Sean: Remember Marina’s backstory? She was a porn star, but also she used to work in a circus taming and lassoing horses, jumping from one to the next, with hair down all wild and untamed. She used to be in control, using ropes to bind wild animals. But then she is the one tied up…
Kristine: Well, why does Marina have to be a porn star and a drug addict to be an unconventional woman? She is “sick,” addicted to drugs. A “bad” woman. I mean, doesn’t she sort of need the hetero-normalizing force of Ricky to “cure” her?
Sean: There’s a doubling betwen Paquita the horse’s hoof and Marina’s tooth. But I don’t think Marina’s “bad” in the movie’s cosmology. Can we talk about The Midnight Phantom?
Sean: What did you make of it? That leather bondage gear killer?
Kristine: I mean, it parallels what Ricky does to Marina…
Sean: Right… The killer arrives in the movie to take her to a very safe place where they can be happy, like Ricky wants to do.
Kristine: Right, and it’s clearly fucked. Would you agree that there are similarities between the narrative of Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and… and…RUBY SPARKS????
Sean: DONT EVEN GET ME STARTED WITH THAT. I SERIOUSLY CANNOT EVEN!
Kristine: But there are! In terms of men projecting unrealistic expectations on ladies, right? And not being able to deal with the reality of actual romance and courtship?
Sean: I FUCKING HATE RUBY SPARKS.
Kristine: But both movies have men creating a fiction around heterosexuality, whether that’s by abducting their dream girl or dreaming her into existence. Either way, women are just props in the fantasies of men.
Sean: I know Zoe Kazan wrote Ruby Sparks to comment upon such things, but I reject it nonetheless.
Kristine: I also want to talk about the tradition of violence against ladies being played for comedy. Like Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story and ten million trillion other examples.
Sean: Right, all the hilarious slapping of ladies that takes place in screwball comedies…
Kristine: Don’t you think Almodóvar is nodding to that tradition in this movie?
Sean: That’s very plausible. But do you think Almodóvar wants us to laugh at Marina’s predicament? At her all tied up and being headbutted?
Kristine: I don’t know if he wants us to laugh, but I think he is referencing that violence against women is a comic trope.
Sean: That makes sense. Do you agree that the ending of this movie is NOT happy, and that those references to screwball comedies are all a part of undercutting the romance?
Kristine: I do!
Sean: You know feminists were all outraged about the movie back in the day.
Kristine: It makes me think of all those studies about the effect of marriage on men and women… like does it make them happier, healthier, etc. In all those studies marriage is tremendously helpful for men, but not so much for ladies (except financially).
Sean: Yeah, that whole narrative about women being caretakers/nurturers benefits heterosexual men most of all.
Kristine: Like, there is actually far less of an incentive for ladies to marry. Men should really be the ones beating a path down to the altar.
Sean: But Kristine, women NEED men because they need dick!
Kristine: Marina doesn’t! She has her scuba man!
Kristine: Is it true that the scuba masturbation scene was the one that earned this movie at NC-17?
Sean: I think the scuba scene didn’t help.
Kristine: I loved the scuba scene!
Sean: People fear the vagina and female pleasure.
Kristine: Máximo doesn’t, but that’s only because he is impotent, yes?
Sean: But no… Máximo gives that huge speech about how he was losing his sexual virility previously but ever since having a stroke and being confined to the wheelchair, he’s rediscovered his libido and now he’s hornier than ever. Remember? This is another dimension to what I think is the movie’s extremely dim view of heteronormative marriage. Máximo was previously castrated by marriage, it wore him down and dulled him into impotence – so his stroke is this event that rescrambles his brain and “wakes him up,” leading to him rediscovering his masculine sexuality. Again, he was a married zombie or body snatcher, but now he’s radicalized and queered. His sexuality is straining against the confines of his marriage…
Kristine: But is he able to “perform”? I hate that expression, by the way.
Sean: I don’t know but he has that masturbatory scene where he’s watching Marina’s old porn movies. I think that scene strongly implies that he’s sexually activated again. But what about the fact that Marina was a porn actress? What do make of her former porn career? And Máximo beating off to it?
Kristine: I thought he was just masturbating with his eyes, in his head. I don’t think her being a porn star is that big a thing. I mean, obviously it shows that she is a unconventional woman, and not an obvious candidate for the super-traditional role that Ricky wants to impose on her. But remember the film goes out of its way to talk about her other career as a horse trainer… I think she’s more a wild, untamed lady then a whore, you know?
Sean: Well, Marina’s porn background is actually part of what got me interested in talking about this movie for the blog.
Sean: We have talked about the connection between porn and horror before, in terms of both genres having little mainstream legitimacy and both being considered “lower” and base and definitely not artistic. I think it’s interesting that Marina is transitioning out of porn and into the mainstream by making a horror movie. That feels like a bit of a comment on the connections between sexual narratives (or more accurately, sexual spectacle) and horror narratives and spectacle.
Sean: In some ways, The Midnight Phantom is part of what propels Marina TOWARDS heteronormativity.
Kristine: Right, she is going “legit.”
Sean: Yes, and horror is just a step away from porn, which as queer a profession as you can get. We mentioned how in the narrative of the horror film, she is empowered to say NO to the leather daddy. She kung fu whips his ass!
Kristine: Right, but she feigns resignation and THEN kung fu whips his ass.
Sean: True. The horror movie as a fantasy space for women to act out their violent aggressions towards “monsters” is interesting to think about and I kind of think Almodóvar is aware of that and wants us to think about that.
Kristine: Though remember what happens to her after she gets away from the monster? She is left literally hanging out in the rain, precariously swinging. She is still in danger, even though she has escaped the monster.
Sean: Good point.
Kristine: Remember that Máximo even registers discomfort with her predicament in the movie. He is like, “I can’t leave her that way” and know he needs to figure out some other ending that doesn’t leave her in danger. It is hard work for men in this universe to come up with stories about women that don’t render them victims. Máximo is compelled to go back and “tie up” (sorry) the loose end of her character’s fate.
Sean: Yes, even her Wonder Woman kick-ass moment is fraught with peril. There is no way out of danger for her. But I still think that Almodóvar recognizes that one of the few places in culture for women to be depicted “fighting back” is in horror movies. I mean, the scene from The Midnight Phantom could have involved Marina getting killed, but instead it is the big “final girl” climax of the movie that Almodóvar wants us to see.
Kristine: Right. How does this tie into Night of the Living Dead, do you think? I mean, is it a metaphor for Marina fighting off the mindless acceptance of social mores?
Sean: Well, we all ready talked about how Night of the Living Dead and Invasion of the Body Snatchers could be shout-outs to the brainwashing of marriage and heteronormativity… I’m wondering what you made of the plump journalist who had a history with the horror movie killer. Remember her?
Kristine: I do. I’m not sure what to make of her, to be honest. It was a “the one that got away” scenario, very typical storyline in romantic comedies. I thought it was interesting to have this secondary love narrative, because that is such a trope of romantic comedies (see When Harry Met Sally, et al).
Sean: Well, between her and Lola and the head of the mental hospital at the beginning, there are an awful lot of “pathetic” single women in the movie. The only tough girl in the movie really is the Amazing Moped Queen, commanding her gang of street toughs. Remember how Máximo keeps telling Lola that she’s ugly?
Kristine: ALL of the other ladies in the movie are single – Lola, the journalist, the single mom doctor who insists to Marina that Ricky is such a great catch, even Marina and Lola’s mom (remember, their dad was a thief and abandoned or was thrown out by the family?). All the single ladies are humiliated – Máximo tells Lola she’s ugly, Marina tells homely journalist she’s “very fat”, the doctor has ugly twins, Moped Queen gets robbed…
Sean: Yes! Don’t you think Almodóvar has taken the Norman Bates-type character in Ricky and reframed him as a sexy heartthrob? It’s sort of disturbing. That line between leading man/monster is a lot of what this movie is about (back to The Midnight Phantom).
Kristine: I agree with that read 100%.
Sean: I also think, in terms of being a commentary on horror movies, this movie also acknowledges an unspoken sexual tension between final girls and the men that are trying to kill them.
Kristine: I agree with that, too. Ricky tells Marina several times he will kill her, despite ostensibly being there to win her over.
Sean: This is basically what Twilight is all about!
Kristine: Truth! Can I just say, I am so disgusted with this Kristen Stewart thing. Her not going to premiers, etc. I want her to show up and be like, “And??”
Sean: I am pro-Kristen and I hate the media. TEAM KRISTEN.
Kristine: Fuck Rob Pattison whatever his name.
Kristine: TEAM KRISTEN.
Sean: So… I feel like this movie (and horror in general) is OBSESSED with the threat that men pose to women. Remember the rapey jock spying on Terry in Friday the 13th Part 2? So… as a heterosexual woman, have you ever “feared” the men you’ve dated, not because they were actually dangerous, but that they just had the potential to be?
Kristine: Hmmm, interesting.
Sean: Is there an undercurrent of violence? Or potential violence? “He could overpower me”…. etc.
Kristine: Only one that I can think of, and the relationship had already deteriorated before that ever came up. And it was a horrible feeling, not a seductive one.
Sean: So with “nice guys”, you’re not aware of the predator threat?
Kristine: I mean, the fact that most men I have dated COULD overpower me is a reality.
Sean: I know, you’re a little boo.
Kristine: I think all ladies are constantly aware of that on some level.
Sean: Aha! So you are thinking about that sometimes?
Kristine: I think most hetero men, perhaps unconsciously, also try to mitigate that factor as much as possible, and I support that effort if it is reasonable.
Sean: I mean, sometimes my boyfriend and I wrestle or rough-house…. I mean, have you ever roughhoused with boyfriends and it got out of hand?
Kristine: No. Most heteros don’t do that unless they know they are physically matched, which is not often the case. If a boyfriend wrestled with me, he would deliberately scale back his strength. I mean, this is a provocative statement, but the same way I would if I was wrestling/playing with a child. Obviously the dynamic between men and women should NOT mirror that of adult/child, but the truth is that most men are just physically that much stronger than most women.
Sean: Aha. I mean, I kind of think that this movie forces us to look at the eroticism of horror… and the horror of eroticism. I mean, isn’t sex often semi-violent or contain a violent subtext? It cuts both ways – that’s why I think Almodóvar made this movie.
Kristine: I like that when Marina and Ricky have sex they are equally matched.
Sean: I was struck by how reciprocal and ecstatic the sex scene was. It is a very hot sex scene.
Kristine: I agree. Everything changes during sex, between men and women.
Sean: The sex scene is really focused on female pleasure.
Kristine: Right, she tells him when to come.
Sean: They change positions, they play with roles, they’re really enjoying each other…
Kristine: He’s definitely… the apparatus, right?
Sean: Yes, or at least, he’s deferring to her in some ways there. He’s been so obsessed with control and in that scene, he is not particularly interested in being in control.
Kristine: Agreed. But as we discussed before, his plans for their future are going to do away with this kind of erotic freedom. Let me be clear, I am not saying that married folks with kiddies can’t have hot sex. But…
Sean: Is this ending as bleak as the ending of Night of the Living Dead?
Kristine: Well, no. YOU think it is????
Kristine: Well, here is the thing. I don’t know what to do with Almodóvar. He always has these charismatic, complicated female characters that completely drive the story. The men are often secondary. But the women are always in peril and often unhappy. He confuses me. Which is okay.
Sean: What do you rate this movie?
Kristine: Maybe my rating is… I’m confused and that’s okay. AND Something this queer should be better, dammit! You?
Sean: I think mine is… Provocative and problematic.
Kristine: Have you seen or read The Collector? The movie stars Terence Stamp.
Sean: I have not seen it. Is it good? I’ve almost rented it like ten times.
Kristine: I haven’t seen it either but I read the book, recommended to me by… my mother! I have heard the movie is quite good. This movie reminds me of that book because in both, in some ways, the captive runs the show. The captor is fascinated by her and wants her to be happy, and believes the day she accepts her new reality she WILL be happy. But of course what he is doing is absolutely vile and horrifying. What do we think would happen to Marina if she didn’t decide she “loves” Ricky?
Sean: He would kill her. I mean obviously it is a problem when these kinds of stories seem to excuse the man for his “passion.” This movie is right at that line, if not over it.
Kristine: Well, The Collector doesn’t excuse the guy at all, but there ARE similarities.
Sean: Almodóvar has said that this movie is not meant to be about S&M at all and that the ropes are meant as metaphors or some shit. What I take from that comment is that the ropes aren’t meant as kink, or as power play. They are dead serious ropes.
Kristine: Right. Metaphors for being “tied down” to domestic life? Not out there, swinging from a rope wrapped around some leather daddy’s neck in a storm?
Sean: Sure, yes, and entangled in heteronormativity and in gender roles.
Kristine: Which is what Marina realizes at the end when she is crying in the car.
Sean: I think so. She’s freed from the physical ropes, but actually is more ensnared than ever.
Kristine: Poor Marina.
Sean: Poor, poor Marina now has to have a fucking weekend in the country with her fat little mama and smile like a good girl.
Kristine: That is Almodóvar’s mother in real life!
The Girls Rating: I’m confused and that’s okay AND Something this queer should be better dammit!
The Freak’s Rating: Provocative and problematic.