The Law of Desire is the first film to come out of El Deseo, the production company Pedro Almodóvar founded along with his brother Agustin, and showcases many of the quintessential aspects of the director’s style: the influences of melodrama and noir (from Hollywood Golden Age directors like Douglas Sirk and Billy Wilder); ever-shifting sexuality and gender; an unconventional family unit; and a flair for the ridiculous – not to mention copious amounts of cocaine. But it also marks Almodóvar’s turn towards more deliberate, serious filmmaking after his start with low-budget, Movida Madrileña-flavored films like Pepi, Luci, Bom and Labyrinth of Passion.
Through the outrageous story of Pablo (Eusebio Poncela), his two lovers (Miguel Molina, Antonio Banderas) and his transsexual sister (Carmen Maura), Almodovar pulls the audience into a post-Franco Madrid obsessively curated with his signature visual style, a mix of graphic patterns and vivid colors that recalls the pop-art movement and Technicolor classics like Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Against this backdrop the characters move according to the laws of passion, jealousy, and above all, desire. But while the film contains a good dosage of soap opera twists and camp humor, part of its exaggerated quality feels purposefully transgressive, meant to challenge the intolerance and hypocrisy Almodovar perceived in 1980s Spanish society. While he constantly harkens back to certain personal themes (many the result of growing up under an authoritarian government), The Law of Desire stands out as more strongly autobiographical: Pablo a sort of alter-ego for the director himself, working on a screenplay as labyrinthine and eccentric as the story he stars in. This penchant for drawing inspiration from his own life would later return in the 2019 Pain and Glory (again featuring his stalwart Antonio Banderas), albeit with a more melancholic, reflective bent.
It is this self-awareness, this mix of the comic and the sincere, that gives The Law of Desire its unique, contradictory personality: at once trashy and high art, playful, enjoyable entertainment as well as auteur cinema.