Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990)

Pedro Almodovar’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is a colorful, pulpy, twisted love story, a modern take on Beauty and the Beast.

The main premise is a young man, just released from a mental institution, finds and takes his beloved, a former porno actress trying to go straight, hostage so she may fall in love with him. There are many effectively chilly moments of pursuit and capture between these two.

More complicated, though, and more difficult to understand are the love that grows between them. I’m not entirely sold on her Stockholm Syndrome 180-turn on him, falling in love with her captor. As much pain and violence he endures on her behalf, his courtship is hardly gentlemanly. Perhaps this is part of the greater underlying message, that her life has been so devoid of traditional romance that she’ll take what she can get. Whatever the reasons (love is hardly a rational impulse in the first place), Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is not an easy film to understand.

It is, however, an incredibly easy film to watch. It is so beautifully shot, in lurid eye-popping technicolor at picturesque angles and scene composition. You could watch it muted and still be engrossed in the action. The story is also layered with such complexity; it relies on the audience to pay attention to fully track the action that transpires.

While it asks the audience to take some leaps of faith, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is a satisfying pulp satire on contemporary romance.

Orpheus (1950)

Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus is a wildly imaginative, yet wholly confusing, interpretation of the Orpheus in the Underworld myth. It is clearly well thought-out, with layers upon layers of meaning waiting to be discovered, though upon this viewer’s first experience, the film was overall muddled and unclear.

Not to say this wasn’t intentional – on the contrary, Cocteau is a director who definitely knows what he’s doing. Even though I didn’t understand a lot of it, oddities and unexplained phenomena manifested themselves (however obtusely) later on in the film. For instance, mysterious radio transmissions received quick, somewhat explanatory references about two-thirds through; and quite a few anonymous characters took scenes and scenes to identify and develop.

Like Orpheus himself, we are thrust into a confusing, murky environment with little explanation. Clues manifest themselves throughout, though even the most disciplined viewer might grow impatient with the lack of clear answers and structure.

Cocteau acknowledges this, however; the constant motif of mirrors and the film’s climax of entering a mirror into A) an alternative reality or B) some time before the events of Orpheus began, invite us to re-think and re-visit this work, and go through the motions again.

Like the bizarro Night of the Hunter, I’m not quite ready to rate this one yet – hard to say whether I enjoyed it or not, but I was definitely intrigued and I know this requires additional viewing. This is surely a film which shall reward repeat visits and journeys back through the mirror.

All That Heaven Allows (1955)

From Douglas Sirk, the granddaddy of soaps, comes the triumph All That Heaven Allows, a small-town melodrama of forbidden lovers in a world that will not accept them.

This movie is so impressive largely because it handles such sappy material with genuine dignity and humanity. The basic premise has Jane Wyman as an upper-middle class widow, falling in love with her gardener Rock Hudson. They come from two different worlds – hers of country clubs and garden parties, his of cabins and nature. (His background and interests barely get fleshed out, but who cares?)

The strong performances truly elevate the slim plot, making us believe their romance and desperation to a far greater level than we probably should. With each disapproval from neighbors and family, the impact and toll it takes on their love are truly painful to withstand.

This film resonates so well also because it is still relevant; the strong socioeconomic contrast that nearly keeps them apart is just as real today, arguably even more so given the ever-rising divorce rates.

We also get some classic Sirkian phallic symbols – from Rock Hudson wielding a rifle at waist level to his ascending blanketed knee upon Jane Wyman’s arrival in a pivotal scene, Sirk inserts plenty of sex into an (explicitly) sexless film.

In addition to these tongue-in-cheek visual cues, though, Sirk also creates powerful imagery to convey Wyman’s sense of entrapment. In one memorable scene, her children (who have just expressed their intolerance of her new romance) give her a new TV set, placing it in an open space between a chair and the fireplace. This contraption, referenced earlier to “keep housewives busy” during the day, is spatially trapping her in her home – even further driven as the camera zooms into the TV’s reflection of Jane Wyman staring sadly into the screen.

The strong performances and gorgeous technicolor visuals contribute to a masterwork that far surpasses its predecessor Magnificent Obsession and grazes the brilliance of Written on the Wind.

Black Orpheus (1959)

Many arthouse films, particularly older, foreign ones, take a while to enjoy – extensive thinking, or are simply slow-cooking to develop greater understanding or appreciation for them. This is not at all the case for the dazzling Black Orpheus, an exciting, imaginative, vibrant work that truly made my jaw drop upon learning its release date.

This stunning retelling of the classic Orpheus in the Underworld myth is translated to modern-day Brazil during the Carnaval festivities. Within this context, Black Orpheus could very well work as a documentary, illustrating in vibrant detail the planning, execution, and aftermath of this major annual event within Brazilian culture. All the major characters play different roles in the festivities, and it’s fascinating to see how these roles play out throughout the tragedy.

Even from this contemporary context, the story is given the weight of mythology through negative association to the setting of Carnaval Brazil. Eurydice, a geographic outsider, does not anticipate Carnaval like her cousin and the rest of the women do. She is subdued and (understandably) is mostly fearful of men, while the other women chase men in aggressive, active pursuit.

Her star-crossed lover Orpheus also holds a unique place within this world; his music makes the sun rise each morning, and his gentle guitar melodies are a distinct contrast from the hypnotic, pounding sounds of the Carnaval samba.

These separations from their context elevate Orpheus and Eurydice to more than just Carnaval partygoers; their very being is not unique to that time and place, but is malleable to a broader, more universal context – the very stuff of mythology.

The first two thirds of Black Orpheus are a nonstop adrenaline rush, seducing us into the Carnaval excitement, making the tragic final act that much more startling. The tense moments of Death’s pursuit of Eurydice and Orpheus’s fall carry more impact because of their silence, relative to the carefree noise we’d become accustomed to.

Magical realism is not easy to do, but when a film like Black Orpheusdefines its own discourse (much like Pasolini, whose similarly pageant-ridden films were undoubtedly influenced by this one) and elevates its story material to something greater than its face value, it supersedes mere fantasy and becomes an enduring masterpiece.