“Labyrinth of Passion” is a new Tartan release of an early 1982 effort from internationally acclaimed Spanish director Pedro Almodovar. The film is a scandalous look at love and sex in early 1980s Madrid which throws off the shackles of good taste and proudly celebrates excess and the alternative ways of life, which at the time were condemned and despised by the country’s conservative majority.
Although it is difficult to summarise the plot without giving away too many of the eccentric twists and turns, the film basically revolves around Sexilia (actress Cecilia Roth, who went on to work with the director on “All About my Mother” and other films), a young female sex addict whose father works in artificial insemination and whose psychiatrist seems almost as crazy as she is. Her life becomes even stranger after she meets and falls in love with Riza Niro (Imanol Arias), a seemingly gay punk rocker who is actually the son of an emperor and who is hiding out in Madrid, pursued by a motley gang of Islamic terrorists. The two try to reconcile their relationship with their unconventional lifestyles, helped by a number of equally odd characters, such as Sexilia’s fan Queti (Marta Fernandez Muro), a girl who works in a laundry and who may or may not be sleeping with her father.
“Labyrinth” turns out to be a very appropriate title since the plot is a surprisingly intricate soap opera of bizarrely idealistic romance and hysterical coincidences which rushes by at a dizzying and often confusing speed. Although it could be viewed as a taboo baiting satire on modern bourgeois morality, the film arguably works better as a straight, if determinedly trashy farce, mainly since most of its content no longer has much in the way of the controversial shock value it might have enjoyed upon its original release. Whilst this does rob the film of some of its intended impact, there is still enough sex in a variety of forms, such as gay, group, bondage and comic incest, to ensure that it is really only for open minded viewers even in these more liberal times.
The film is reminiscent of the early works of John Waters, with a cast of larger than life, gender confused characters that might politely be described as colourful, including nymphomaniacs, incompetent kidnappers, and of course, glitter-doused drag queens a-plenty, all of whom spend a fair amount of the running time high on drugs or indulging in a multitude of other vices. Interestingly, the director himself joins in the fun, making a cameo appearance as a leather clad transvestite pop singer, performing the raucous song ‘Suck it to me’, which he also wrote the lyrics for. This adds a certain personal touch to the camp mayhem, and by implicating himself in the action in such outrageous fashion he blurs the line between artist and art. Antonio Banderas (who starred in a number of Almodovar’s later films) also has a small role, with an appearance as a man apparently able to track people down using his sense of smell that is likely to surprise fans of his Hollywood films.
As expected, the film has a glitzy look, filled with crazy outfits and frightening hairdos that stand out against the drab city streets. Despite this, Almodovar shoots with an oddly naturalistic eye which lends the proceedings a believable air, making the weird and wacky characters seem very much part of everyday life. The film is vibrant and fast moving throughout, bursting with a manic energy that gives the impression of an unfettered lust for life, and more importantly, for sex, that is constantly on the verge of explosion. This does mean that the film is frequently rather messy and chaotic, being unfocused and hard to follow in places, and as such it is noticeably cruder than the director’s later efforts.
Of course, given the film’s aims this criticism is entirely beside the point, and “Labyrinth of Passion” stands as a piece of wild cult cinema which is required viewing for fans of the director. Determinedly absurd and debauched, it gives an early glimpse of his talents and the themes which he returns to in his later films in more depth, though arguably with less passion and youthful enthusiasm than shown here.
Pedro Almodovar (director) / Pedro Almodovar (also story), Terry Lennox (screenplay)
CAST: Cecilia Roth … Sexilia
Imanol Arias … Riza Niro
Helga Lin’ … Toraya
Marta Fernandez Muro … Queti
Fernando Vivanco … Doctor
Ofelia Ang’lica … Susana