It features two incest scenes, a nymphomaniac called Sexilia and a cross-dressing Italian princess undergoing fertility treatment, and yet Pedro AlmíÂ³dovar’s Labyrinth of Passion fails to captivate as much as his other early works.
Filmed in Madrid in the early 1980s, the film trembles with the aftershock of the ‘movida madrileí±a’ – the social and cultural explosion that followed the death of General Franco and marked the end of the totalitarian regime. Depicting the hedonism of underground music venues and gay cruising grounds, the daring script shows AlmodíÂ³var’s enthusiastic embrace of Spain’s new-found freedom of expression.
A simple love triangle was obviously not enough for the excess-loving director and here we have nothing less than a love pentagon – the titular labyrinth of passion. Tired of orgies, Sexilia wants to fall in love with the exiled son of a fallen Arabic emperor. Unfortunately the newly-fertile Italian princess has the same idea. She is being treated by Sexilia’s father – an eminent fertility doctor – who both Sexilia’s therapist and her best friend are determined to get into bed. Combined with a few more trysts and plots twists – including a plot to kidnap the Emperor’s son – the film takes a winding road down to an inconclusive ending.
Not that the ride isn’t enjoyable. The film is packed with the characters AlmodíÂ³var does best – women. Parading through the film is the full gamut of AlmodíÂ³varian female personalities: the dowdy, put-upon women, the feisty man-ivores, and the kooky ones with regional accents.
Then, there’s AlmodíÂ³var’s outrageous sense of humour, which he has applied to everything from AIDS to child abuse throughout his work. Here he tackles incest with remarkable finesse. In contrast with the rape scene in Kika, which lost AlmodíÂ³var a few female fans because of its bombastic humour, the director approaches his delicate topic with the right mix of sympathy and comedy here and consequently gets away with a graphic incestuous rape scene – which involves bondage no less.
On a more minor note the film is also worth watching for AlmodíÂ³var’s appearance in full drag as a nightclub compere. The director also plays himself at the beginning of the film in a short but hilarious scene in which he directs a young transvestite junkie to butcher himself with a drill for a photo strip entitled Photo Porno Sexy Fever.
Sadly though, the rest of the film does not follow through in this vein. Although funny and vaguely intriguing, the film lacks the dark humour and memorable scenes of the director’s best films. Both the female leads are encumbered with too many boring worries to fully come to life. The rest of the characters are never developed enough to become truly sympathetic or consistently hilarious. Introduced to the film in a flurry of make-up, affected spanglish and camp coquettishness, Fabio – the star of the Sexy Fever photo shoot – could have been a great character. But as soon as we get to know him he disappears from the film without a trace or an explanation.
It is undoubtedly a treat to have access to another early AlmodíÂ³var work in this country, especially one that captures the carefree spirit of eighties Spain and provides such a refreshing contrast to the glut of Hollywood’s cloned blockbusters. However, a dragging plot and the spotlight on the least interesting characters make Pedro’s labyrinth a less than compelling ride.