MOVIE REVIEW : Sex a Matter of Life or Death in ‘Matador’

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Times Staff Writer

In the swift, coolly elegant “Matador” (at selected theaters), Spain’s provocative film maker Pedro Almodovar perceives in bullfighting an equation between sex and death that cuts to the heart of a culture that is at once intensely puritanical and macho.

Neither “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” (1985), Almodovar’s lament for the overburdened housewife, nor his “Law of Desire” (1987), with its volatile transsexual heroine, prepares one for “Matador” (1986).

To be sure, “Matador” is as outrageous as the other two, but it does not provoke easy laughter as they do and consequently is more disturbing in its depiction of the absurdities of passion. Such are Almodovar’s skills, however, that the film fortunately compels more than it repels. Even so, those not previously acquainted with him should be prepared for considerable kinkiness, and everyone should be warned of its downright grisly opening four minutes.


Almodovar takes as his motif the famous final scene of “Duel in the Sun” in which Jennifer Jones and Gregory Peck, having shot each other fatally, go into a dying clinch. Watching this scene in a movie theater are Maria Cardenal (Assumpta Serna) and Diego Montes (Nacho Martinez).

Montes is a celebrated torero, sidelined permanently by a goring that has left him lame. He has discovered that the only thing that equals the thrill of triumph in the bull ring is sex that ends in murder. In worshiping Montes as she has long done, Cardenal, a busy and confident criminal lawyer, has in turn found that only sex that culminates in her skewering a man with the same precision with which Montes has slain bulls is truly satisfying. (Could it be that Almodovar is parodying Bertolucci’s “Last Tango in Paris” or, more likely, Oshima’s “In the Realm of the Senses”?)

If Maria and Diego, who would make a couple as stunning as they are lethal, represent experience at its most decadent and destructive, Angel (Antonio Banderas) and Eva (Eva Cobo) represent innocence at its most vulnerable. Angel is one of Diego’s bullfighting pupils, a virginal youth with a feverishly religious mother (Julietta Serrano). Eva is Diego’s current young lover, a beautiful model, also with a dominating mother (Chus Lampreave) as ambitious as Angel’s mother is fanatic. (These two mothers offer some comic relief.) The creepy ways in which Maria, Diego, Angel and Eva interlock would delight Bunuel, to whom Almodovar is surely the heir apparent.

For all its jolts and bizarre flights of fancy, “Matador” (Times-rated Mature--most definitely) is a marvelously fluid and darkly sensual film in which Almodovar elicits exquisitely controlled performances. Playing a bit part as a fashion designer, he saves the best observation for himself. “Spain,” he explains, “is divided--into the envious and the intolerant.”


A Cinevista/World Artists Release. Executive producer Andres Vicente Gomez. Director Pedro Almodovar. Screenplay Almodovar, Jesus Ferrero. Camera Angel Luis Fernandez. Music Ernardo Bonezzi. Production designers Roman Arango, Jose Morales, Josep Rosell. Costumes Jose M. Cossio. Film editor Jose Salcedo. With Assumpta Serna, Antonio Banderas, Nacho Martinez, Eva Cobo, Julietta Serrano, Chus Lampreave, Carmen Maura, Elusebio Poncela, Bibi Andersen. In Spanish with English subtitles.

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

Times-rated: Mature.