The Philosopher’s POV: Talk to Her

January 7, 2014 No Comments


Professor Bruce Russell  lead the pre-screening discussion for  Pedro Almodovar’s masterpiece “Talk to Her” on Friday, January 10 at 9pm.

Professor Russell has allowed us to make his paper “Almodovar on Love” available.  Almodovar’s unique and innovative views on the nature of love and relationships has never been more poignant.  The paper is posted below and provides an in-depth exploration of key Almodovar films.  What do you think?


Almodovar on Love

I. Introduction

            Some concepts can be analyzed from our armchairs.  We can arrive at a definition (or analysis) of “bachelor,” “sister,” “lying,” and (in principle, anyway) “knowledge,” “cause,” “happiness,” and “acting freely” simply by fully understanding what the terms mean. The definitions of these terms will give the essence of the kinds the terms pick out. With what are called natural kind terms, it is not possible to determine the essence of the kind they pick out from our armchairs. Favorite examples of philosophers of such terms include: “water,” “heat,” and “gold.” From our armchairs we can know what the reference fixing definition of, say, “water” is, e.g., “the liquid that flows in the streams, is found in lakes, and falls from the sky as rain on the planet on which we live.” But from our armchairs we cannot know that the essence of water is H2O. We have to do some empirical work, do some chemistry, in order to discover the essence of water.

            Intermediate to “lying” and “water” are what might be called “hybrid” cases. From your armchair you can know that rubies must be red, but you cannot know what chemical structure they must have to be rubies. Something similar seems to be the case with terms that refer to mental states. You can know from your armchair that remorse, unlike regret, necessarily involves the belief that you have done something wrong, but you cannot know what it is like to feel remorse without feeling it. You can know from your armchair that love necessarily involves caring for the beloved for his or her own sake, but you cannot know what it is like to feel love without feeling it. Further, even if you know what love feels like, and know that it involves caring for someone else for their own sake, it is hard (though perhaps not impossible) to know from your armchair what conduct is compatible with love.

            We can know that love is compatible with betrayal, but surely this is from experience, not from merely knowing the meaning of the term or understanding the concept. In the same way we can know that love can bring great joy, or great misery if unrequited. But is parental love compatible with neglect and hurtful insensitivity to the child? And is erotic love compatible with wanting to kill your beloved?  What would an example of really good, but not perfect, selfless, or romantic, love look like? And what would an example of really bad love look like? Pedro Almodovar’s films address these questions by offering examples of love for us to consider.

There are various kinds of love: there is the kind of love that parents have for their children and that children have for their parents. There is the kind of love that friends have for one another. Then there is the kind of romantic love that couples have for each other. What is the difference, and what the similarities, between these various kinds of love? And when it comes to romantic love, how is it different from mere sexual desire?

II. Maternal love: selfless and selfish

Love, as opposed to lust or mere sexual desire, seems to require genuine concern for the beloved.  And that concern must be intrinsic; you must care about your beloved for her own sake. Someone who cares for another only because she provides sexual pleasure, or intellectual stimulation, does not love that person. Genuine love, as opposed to its imposters with which it is at times confused, requires some sort of intrinsic concern for the one loved.

Perhaps the paradigm of selfless love, love that is primarily concerned with the well-being of another, is maternal love. Mothers are often willing to make great sacrifices for their children. Psychological egoists would question whether they care for their children for the children’s sake. They might argue that even seemingly selfless mothers never really care about their children for their own sakes because these mothers would not make sacrifices for their children if those sacrifices did not bring them a sense of satisfaction. But this is not a good test of what it is to care for something for its own sake.  We sometimes listen to music for its own sake even though we would not if it did not give us pleasure. And sometimes mothers (and fathers) make sacrifices for their children where they do not believe that they (the parents) will be better off on the whole as a result. Surely some mother has taken the rap for a crime that her child has committed, knowing that she will be imprisoned in a foreign land under harsh conditions, never to have contact with her children or friends again. While the thought of saving her child may give her some satisfaction, assume that she believes correctly that more satisfaction on balance would result if she did not take the fall. Nevertheless, she takes it. This sort of sacrifice is sometimes made, even if infrequently. So there is no reason to doubt that there can be selfless maternal (and, in general, parental) love. 

Pedro Almodovar portrays various kinds of love in his films. In All About My Mother (1999) Manuela (Cecilia Roth) is a portrait of maternal love. She loves her son, Esteban, who gets killed on his eighteenth birthday running after a cab to get the autograph of an actress he likes. Manuela has raised her son by herself and kept the identity of his father hidden from him. She has torn away the half of old photos that shows her with Esteban’s father, a transsexual now called Lola but originally named Esteban, too. Manuela only discovers after her son has died that he realized that his father must have been the half torn from the photos and, in his words, “the same half that my life is missing.” After his death, she reads in her son’s notebook how much he wanted to meet his father no matter “who he is or what he’s like or how he behaved towards her.”

Realizing her mistake, Manuela sets out for Barcelona to tell Lola that he had a son, to give him a picture of his son, and to have him read from his son’s notebook. While looking for work in Barcelona, she meets a young woman named Rosa (Penelope Cruz) who, as it turns out, is pregnant with Lola’s child! The promiscuous and drug-addicted Lola is HIV positive and infects Rosa. Kind and loving person that she is, Manuela agrees to have Rosa move in with her and cares for her throughout her pregnancy and until her eventual death from HIV. While in the hospital to have her baby, Rosa asks Manuela to promise her that she won’t hide anything from the child she is about to have. Manuela agrees. While Manuela genuinely cares for her son, for Rosa, and eventually for Rosa’s son (named Esteban, too, after Manuela’s deceased son), she has not been a perfect mother. She comes to see from her son’s notebook, and from Rosa’s request for openness towards her son, that in the long run openness is best for your loved ones and that the desire to protect them from harm does not warrant withholding the truth. While Manuela had false beliefs about what was best for her son, no one can question the goodness of her heart. She genuinely and selflessly cared for her son, for Rosa, and for Rosa’s son.  Manuela is a paradigm case of a person with agape, a kind of selfless love, a love where one cares about another for that person=s own sake even if it requires self-sacrifice.

Manuela displays this sort of love towards her friends, not just toward Esteban and Rosa, whom she sees as a daughter. She saves the transsexual, Agrado (Antonia San Juan), from an attack by a customer who has paid her for sex, and then tends to Agrado’s wounds. Later she tries to get Agrado an acting part in a play that Manuela herself has been in. Manuela also helps an actress in that play named Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes) find her drug-addicted girlfriend on the streets of Barcelona. As I’ve already noted, she also returns to Barcelona to tell Lola that he had a son, even though she is still angry with him because he was sleeping around with other women when they were married. Manuela provides all this help despite being terribly saddened by the death of her son. In Manuela, Almodovar shows us what real, non-idealized, even partly flawed selfless love can be.

Of course, even selfless love can produce vicious outcomes in certain circumstances. In Volver (2006), Irene (Carmen Maura) is the mother of Raimunda (Penelope Cruz). Townspeople think that she died alongside her husband in a fire, but she actually set fire to the hut in which her husband and his lover were asleep. Irene did this when she learned that her husband had been having sex with their daughter, Raimunda, and got her pregnant. Eventually Raimunda learns that her mother is not dead, and when they meet, Irene asks for forgiveness for “not seeing what was going on,” for being blind to what her husband was up to. She also tells Raimunda that she has been living in purgatory since setting fire to the hut. In the end, Irene takes care of Agustina (Blanca Portillo), who has terminal cancer and is the daughter of the woman she burned to death in the hut. She tells Raimunda, “After what I did to her mother, the least I can do is look after her until she dies.” She does this even though it takes precious time from her that she could have spent with her daughters and granddaughter. Before caring for Agustina, Irene had taken care of her own somewhat senile sister, Paula (Chus Lampreave), until her death. Irene has a conscience, and compassion, and she loves her children.  However, this does not prevent her from brutally killing her husband and his lover when she finds out that her husband had been abusing her daughter. Given appropriate circumstances, even selfless love can erupt into violence in a normally compassionate and moral person.

How far can a mother deviate from the example of selfless maternal love that Manuela and Irene display and still be considered to love her child? This question is addressed in Almodovar’s film Highheels (1991). In High Heels Becky del Paramo (Marisa Paredes) is more concerned with her singing and acting career than her daughter, Rebecca (Victoria Abril). While her daughter is still young, Becky is so absorbed in shopping at an open market that she does not notice her daughter slip away and wander into the company of some shady characters. Later, Becky promises to take Rebecca with her to Mexico where she is going to make a film, but she disappoints Rebecca at the last moment by leaving her behind. She promises to return and that they will then have fun and be together forever, but she never returns until Rebecca is an adult. When she is older, Rebecca asks her mother to come to her wedding, but she says that she is too busy. When Becky comes home to Madrid after a fifteen-year absence, she is more concerned that reporters aren’t there to interview her than with her daughter’s feelings, a daughter who has been looking forward to her return with great anticipation. 

            Rebecca spends her whole life trying to gain her mother’s love. She tries to imitate her but fails, and her mother’s criticisms sting. At one point in the film, she is arrested for killing her husband, Manuel. In a private meeting with her mother, Rebecca says, “As a kid, I was nothing but a bother. But even then, I always wanted to help you. Because I adored you.”  She goes on to tell how she indirectly killed Alberto, Becky’s husband at the time, by switching a bottle of sleeping pills for a bottle of uppers that Alberto took to stay awake while driving. As a result, Alberto fell asleep at the wheel and died in a fiery crash. Rebecca did this for her mother, and tells her, “If I hadn’t, you’d never have sung again, or made films, or loved.” But Rebecca has never forgotten, nor forgiven, her mother for failing to keep her promise to return from Mexico so they could be together forever.

            Rebecca is also angry with her mother for sleeping with Manuel. She knew that Manuel and her mother had been lovers in the past (he was a journalist who followed her to Mexico), and her marrying Manuel was, in her eyes, the only time that she had competed with her mother and won. Rebecca was humiliated when Becky slept with Manuel after her return to Madrid. Despite all the disappointment and hurt throughout her life, Rebecca still adored her mother. In this film, filial love is superior to maternal love in terms of devotion, even if it led Rebecca to kill two men, first Alberto and then Manuel, whom she shot when he told her he wanted a divorce and then belittled her by suggesting that she did not have the courage to carry out her threat to kill herself.

            At the end Rebecca receives the expression of love from her mother that she always longed for when, on her deathbed, her mother takes the fall for Rebecca’s murder of Manuel. After confessing to a priest that she has lied about being the murderer, and admitting that, “While alive, I gave her [Rebecca] nothing,” Becky repents for having caused so much unhappiness in her life. She has made others unhappy by being so self-centered, by worrying about her career and public image rather than the impact of her actions on others, especially her daughter. In the end, mother and daughter come together, but only after a lifetime of maternal love that was far from ideal, that was extremely hurtful to her daughter, and far from selfless. What is most interesting about this case is that it is clear that Becky loved Rebecca deeply despite behavior that would suggest otherwise. This shows how love can be expressed in ways that, on the surface, seem incompatible with it.

III Erotic love

Maternal love, whether selfless or not, is different from erotic love. I’ve claimed that love requires intrinsic concern for the beloved, but does erotic love meet this test? I think it does, though the concern can be more limited than in the case of selfless love. You can be sexually aroused by another and want to have sex with her. However, if you are only concerned with your own sexual pleasure, as you might be if you hired a prostitute, you do not erotically love the other person. To erotically love another you must want that person to experience sexual pleasure through you, and want it not just as a means to your own sexual pleasure. Simon Blackburn has argued that lust at its best involves each person wanting the other to be sexually pleased, in part at least, by each person knowing that the other desires to please him or her (see Lust, p. 89). While selfless love is intrinsically concerned with the general well-being of another, erotic love has a narrower scope being intrinsically concerned only with the sexual pleasure of another.

Of course, the upside of erotic love is the ecstasy and joy it can bring.  Surely Bertrand Russell was writing of erotic love in “What I have lived for,” in the Prologue to his autobiography, when he says,

I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy–ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy.  I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness–that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss.  I have sought it, finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined.

The danger is that when erotic love is not combined with selfless love it can lead to perversion, cruelty born of jealousy, suffering when unrequited, and obsession.

A. Perversion

Perhaps the most familiar and detestable form of perversion occurs in child molestation and abuse. We see the results of this in Almodovar’s Bad Education (2004) where Ignacio Rodriquez (Francisco Boira) becomes a transsexual, a prostitute, and a junkie, at least partly as a result of being molested by Father Manolo (Daniel Gimenez-Cacho), the priest and principal at the school he attended as a boy. Though in the play called The Visit written by Ignacio, Father Manolo says to Ignacio, “I want what’s best for you,” his words ring hollow. He really wants what’s best for himself.

Enrique (Fele Martinez) was Ignacio’s best friend at school, and he got expelled because one night Father Manolo found him and Ignacio together in the bathroom. Enrique grows up, becomes a filmmaker, and is visited by Juan (Gael Garcia Bernal), Ignacio’s brother posing as Ignacio, with The Visit in hand. Enrique reads the script and modifies it, turning it into a screenplay. In the screenplay of The Visit, Father Manolo tells Ignacio, who has turned into a transvestite named Zahara (played by Bernal), that he loves him, and he might actually believe this, even if it’s false. Perhaps Father Manolo loves Ignacio erotically, if not selflessly, but not even that is obviously true because it is not obvious that he cares intrinsically about Ignacio’s sexual pleasure. Even if he did, his actions would still be morally indefensible. He should selflessly love the boys at the school, including Ignacio, and if he did, he would be concerned about their general well-being not (at most) only about their sexual pleasure…and his!

Suppose, for the sake of argument, we grant that Father Manolo was genuinely concerned with the general well-being of the boys at the school and that he acted the way he did because he had false beliefs about what would promote their well-being. Even then he can be faulted for failing to see that his actions did not really contribute to their well-being. In that case he can be faulted for allowing his sexual desires to cloud his moral vision. The danger of erotic love is that it can easily deteriorate into mere sexual desire, and even if it does not, it can cloud one’s vision and thereby prevent one from seeing what harm one is doing.

I think that Almodovar gives us another example of perversion in Matador (1986). Diego Montes (Nacho Martinez) is a bullfighter who has been gored and cannot fight any more. He loves the excitement of the bullring and the rush at the end when the bull is killed. He says to Maria (Assumpta Serna), an attorney to whom he is sexually attracted, that, “To stop killing was to stop living.” Maria shares Diego’s excitement at the kill, for she likes to kill her sexual partners at their moment of climax by inserting a long hairpin in the nape of their necks, between the shoulder blades, in just the way that matadors kill bulls. She then has an orgasm herself seated atop her dead victim.

Diego says to Maria, “You and I are both alike; we are obsessed by death.” And she says to him,  “Since I met you, I’ve been awaiting the greatest orgasm ever. And I enjoy waiting for it…I’m so excited I’m losing my mind.” They finally consummate their erotic love when Maria kills Diego with a hairpin in her usual way as he climaxes, and then, as she climaxes, shoots herself with a pistol inserted in her mouth like a penis.

This is a perverted form of erotic love because its consummation is bad for the lovers. Or is it?  Derek Parfit writes in Reasons and Persons that, “It has been claimed that at the height of their ecstasy, certain Japanese couples leap off precipices, because they do want to die. They want to die because they are at the height of their ecstasy.” (p. 122).  Parfit argues that,

They want to die because they want their lives to end at the highest or best point. This is not what most of us want. But, though the desire is unusual, it is not clearly irrational. Ecstasy does not last, but declines and decays. If some couples are in ecstasy, they can plausibly regard the natural decay of their ecstasy as something that is very undesirable, or well worth avoiding. By cutting short their ecstasy, their deaths would ensure this ecstasy will not decay. For such a couple, death may be worth desiring. (p. 123)

This desire may be irrational despite what Parfit says here because, even if the decay of the most intense ecstasy is worth avoiding, it is not the only thing worth avoiding. Death is also worth avoiding if continued life, even if never at the highest or best point, is well worth living.

In any case, Diego and Maria do not want to die because they want to prevent the decay of the highest ecstasy. They want to die because killing is for them the only way to achieve that sort of ecstasy.  And while it might be rational to do what they must to achieve that ecstasy if they only had ten minutes to live, it seems irrational to buy that ecstasy at the price of denying themselves the possibility of other sorts of ecstasy, and other goods, in a continuing life. Erotic love is perverse when it would be irrational (as with Diego and Maria), or immoral (as with Father Monolo), to consummate it.

It is a debatable question as to whether sadomasochism is perverse because it is a debatable question whether it is irrational for sadists and masochists to fulfill their erotic desires. We tend to think it is because we think that they could get as much sexual pleasure without the pain if they had other sexual desires. But maybe some sadists and masochists would not get as much pleasure with the satisfaction of other desires, or they would if they could acquire those other desires but in fact they cannot. The defenders of sadomasochism also might ask whether the mere fact that if a person had other sexual desires he would get more pleasure makes the sexual desires that he does have perverse. If so, many people who have what are considered normal sexual desires would actually have perverse ones, for they could get more pleasure if they had other sexual desires. 

However, the argument is not that the possibility of more pleasure with other sexual desires makes the current sexual desires perverse. It is that the possibility of more pleasure and no pain with other sexual desires that makes the current desires perverse. But imagine a man whose back aches every time he has sexual intercourse in his favorite position. If he had as strong a sexual desire to have intercourse in some other position that does not hurt his back, he would get more pleasure and no pain.  Still, we would not want to call the sexual desire that he now has irrational or perverse.  So it seems that sadomasochism is not always irrational and perverse, even if it would be better for the sadist and the masochist (better for them) to have other sexual desires. 

Almodovar gives us a third example of perverse erotic love (the priest and the bullfighter are the first two). In Talk to Her (2002) Benigno (Javier Camara) takes care of Alicia (Leonor Watling) who has been diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state as a result of being hit by a car. Benigno washes her, takes care of her period, gives her full body massages, does her nails, cuts her hair, keeps  her skin moist and smooth, and, more than anything, talks to her constantly about everything.  Unfortunately, one day he also has sexual intercourse with her, and Alicia becomes pregnant. Benigno’s sexual desire, like the priest’s, is perverse because its consummation is immoral. Having sexual intercourse with someone without that person=s consent is rape. There is no doubt that Benigno loves Alicia in a selfless way, too, but insofar as he loves her erotically, that sort of love is perverse. I believe that Benigno, and his love for Alicia, seem “creepy,” in part, because his selfless love is combined with a perverse erotic love. He would just seem perverse if he only loved her erotically and that led to sexual intercourse, and he would seem noble if he only loved Alicia selflessly.  But the combination is bizarre.

B. Jealousy

Perhaps the best example of jealousy in film is Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980). The prizefighter Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro) is so full of jealousy that it ruins his marriage and his life.  His fear at losing his beautiful blonde wife so enrages La Motta that he gets in fights over her, beats her, and becomes a drunk when she leaves. Erotic love can be so powerful and can create such fear at the loss of the beloved that the resultant jealousy causes people to act both irrationally and immorally. 

Jealousy raises its ugly head in Almodovar’s Live Flesh (1997). Sancho (Jose Sancho) is married to Clara (Angela Molina), and his jealousy drives him to beat his wife, to shoot his detective partner, David (Javier Bardem), who has been sleeping with his wife, and to try to kill Victor (Liberto Rabal), who has been making love with Clara in order to learn how to become a great lover. In the end, Sancho and Clara kill each other, and David, who has tried to set Victor up because he is jealous of him, ends up in Miami all alone. Only Victor and Elena (Francesca Neri), who is David’s wife, end up happily together. Except for Victor and Elena, Live Flesh is a tale of erotic love gone bad.

C. Obsession

Almodovar’s Law of Desire is a movie about obsessive love. Antonio Benitez (Antonio Banderas) is a good-looking twenty-year-old who falls in love with a middle-aged writer and filmmaker, Pablo Quintero (Eusebio Poncela). However, Pablo is in love with a young man named Juan (Miguel Molina). When Antonio learns that Pablo is going to visit Juan at the coast, he intercedes and tells Juan that Pablo will not be coming to visit him because he loves him, not Juan. After trying to kiss Juan, Antonio tells him that because he loves Pablo he wants to possess everything that belongs to him, and that includes Juan. Juan denies that he belongs to anyone and calls Antonio crazy. Ultimately, Antonio kills Juan by pushing him off a cliff.            

When the police close in on Antonio, he demands an hour with Pablo alone “to negotiate.” He threatens to kill Pablo and anyone else who interrupts them during that hour. He says, “I’m crazy, damn it!” and says to Pablo, “I needed to see you at any price.” When the two are alone, Antonio plays a romantic song whose lyrics are, in part:

I doubt that you will ever love me like I love you.

I doubt that you will find as pure a love as the one you’ll find in me.

You will have a thousand adventures without love

But at the end of it all there’s only pain.

During that hour the two talk and make love. Antonio tells Pablo that when they first met at a disco he knew that he would have to pay a high price for loving him, but that he has no regrets over loving him. In the end, the police shoot Antonio to death when he goes out to the balcony to retrieve Pablo’s crutch.           

There is another story of obsessive love in Law of Desire. Pablo’s sister Tina (Carmen Maura) tells Pablo that she caused the break up of their parents’ marriage because she and her father were having sexual relations. When her mother found out, she and her father went to Morocco while Pablo and his mother stayed in Madrid. At that time Tina was a boy, but because her father liked the idea, she had a sex change. After a few years, her father left her for another woman, and Tina tells her brother that she has never been with a man since. When he asks her who decided that she should have a sex change, Tina responds, “What does it matter? He liked the idea and I was crazy about him…I’m not sorry for what I did. I would have given my life for him.” Tina’s obsessive love for her father ruined her life, just as Antonio’s obsessive love for Pablo cost him his life.

D. Unrequited love

Nearly everyone knows the pain of unrequited love, of love never, or no longer, returned. The main character in Almodovar’s The Flower of My Secret (1995) is Leo, a romance author who writes under a pseudonymn and has a negative opinion of what she writes. She looks forward to her husband Paco coming home for just 24 hours from a war in Brussels. But her hopes are dashed when he tells her that he can only stay for two hours, when it becomes apparent that they are not going to have a sexual encounter, and when he tells her that their marriage is over. She becomes so depressed that she tries to commit suicide and is saved only by an unexpected phone call from her mother. Eventually Elena seems to overcome her depression, partly because someone is sexually attracted to her and partly because what has been stolen from her contributes to a good end. But it is not unusual for the suffering that results from unrequited love to be so intense that people contemplate suicide, and it often takes a long time for them to recover from the loss.

In Almodovar’s earlier film, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), we see the pain of unrequited love treated more humorously, at least on the surface. Pepa (Carmen Maura) feels the pain of unrequited love because Ivan (Fernando Guillen), her former lover, has told her that he does not love her anymore and has left her for another woman. At first Pepa listens to the song “Soy Infeliz,” which means “I am unhappy.” The words of the song say: I’m so unhappy, Because you no longer love me, Be happy, my love, For I’ll never forget the love you gave me, I’m so unhappy.” But eventually Pepa takes the record off her record player, throws it out the window, and it hits Ivan’s new girlfriend, Paulina (Kiti Manver) in the back of the neck. At the end of the movie a song plays that accuses a lover of being a liar, of playacting, of blinding his lover by his passionate kisses, and of destroying her heart.  Pepa changes her tune towards Ivan in keeping with the changes in the lyrics in the songs in the movie, as her nostalgia and the sweet memories of her lover turn into anger at his lying and cheating. 

If it were not for the ecstasy and relief from loneliness that Russell writes about, it would be hard to recommend erotic love since it easily deteriorates into mere sexual desire, gives birth to cruel jealousy, and causes intense suffering when unrequited.  Is there any way to minimize the dangers to which erotic love exposes one?

IV. The best sort of love: selfless and erotic combined

Perhaps the best sort of love combines selfless and erotic love, a love that involves both caring about another’s general well-being, and their sexual pleasure, for their own sakes. Elena and Victor seem to combine the two at the end of Live Flesh. Their relationship began in lust as Victor lost his virginity with Elena in a public toilet, even though he ejaculated before penetrating her. He wants to see her again, but she turns him away. When he shows up at her house, a fight ensues and David, the detective, is shot and becomes paralyzed from the waist down as a result. Victor is wrongly convicted of the shooting and spends four years in prison. 

While there he hatches a plan to become a great lover, to have sex all night with Elena so that she will fall for him, and then to dump her as revenge for her “calling him a jerk-off and saying he couldn’t fuck.” But as he gets to know Elena better, and becomes humanized through his work with the children at Elena’s shelter, he is unable to carry out his plan. Elena sees what a good man Victor is, and they spend a passionate night together on the understanding that they will never meet again.

However, Elena tells her husband David of her night with Victor. Out of jealousy, and as a way to get Sancho to kill Victor, David tells Sancho that Victor has been having sex with Sancho’s wife, Clara. After Sancho and Clara kill each other, David and Elena split up, and Victor and Elena get married. A child is born to them on their way to the hospital, just as Victor’s mother gave birth to him on her way to the hospital. Victor and Elena seem to be happy and in love. It looks as if they share both a selfless and an erotic love.

Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down (1989) is another Almodovar film in which the relationship between two people starts out badly but ends up in a shared selfless and erotic love between two people. At the beginning of the movie Ricky (Antonio Banderas) says to the director of the mental institution from which he is being released that he wants “to get a job, a family, like any other regular guy.” There is nothing irrational about wanting those things, and he is smitten with Marina (Victoria Abril), a woman he had sex with a year earlier when he escaped from the mental institution. What is irrational is for him to think that the best means for realizing his aim is to kidnap Marina and to tie her up so he can “tie her down.”   

            Soon after forcing himself into Marina’s apartment Ricky tells her that he had to kidnap her so she would get to know him and that he is sure that she will come to love him as he loves her. He tells Marina that he will try to be a good husband and a good father to her kids. He reminds her of their earlier encounter and how he had said he would come back and protect her. It is crazy of Ricky to think that Marina will come to love him and that they will marry and have a family together, especially given the way he has forced himself on her. However, his desire for Marina to love him and to share a life with him is not in itself irrational or immoral. What is irrational are his beliefs about how, and whether, the means he has adopted will be successful in getting Marina to love him. So his love for Marina is not perverse, even if his actions are irrational.

            In the end Marina falls in love with Ricky but not because Ricky has head butted, hit, and tied her up. She falls in love with him when she realizes how much he genuinely cares for her.  The incident that brings this home to Marina occurs when Ricky gets beaten up when out on a mission to find her heroin to relieve her pain and her cravings due to her addiction. In Live Flesh it is Victor’s interaction with the children in Elena’s daycare center that turns her heart. In Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down, it is Ricky’s selfless love that turns Marina’s heart. Though their relationship has an unusual beginning, in the end Ricky and Marina develop an erotic love for one another that involves genuine concern by both of them for the well-being of the other person.

It seems that the best sort of love combines erotic with selfless love. Why is that?  In the best sort of sex, there is reciprocity between the lovers. Each wants to receive sexual pleasure from the other, but that is not their only desire. If it were, the best sex would be a kind of business deal where each, so to speak, agrees to scratch the other’s back with each being concerned solely with relieving his own itch.  In the best sort of sex, I also want you to experience sexual pleasure through me, and you want me to experience sexual pleasure through you. When those desires are present, orgasm can satisfy two desires at the same time for each partner: (1) the self-regarding desire that each person has to experience orgasm through their partner, and (2) the desire each person has that the other experience orgasm through them.  So in this situation sexual pleasure is produced by orgasm, and each gets a kind of altruistic satisfaction because the other person has experienced orgasm through them.

It is the shared altruistic desire that produces a sort of communion of spirits that Blackburn writes about and compares to what happens when members of a string quartet cooperate to produce a rousing musical climax. The similarity of the musical case to that involving the best sort of sex is that in the musical case each person wants the joy of playing well himself, and they each want something that none can have without the cooperation of the others, namely, an excellent performance of the musical piece.  However, the difference is that the musicians need not want something for their fellow musicians, need not want, say, that they experience joy through the performance, while in the best sort of sex you must want your partner to experience sexual pleasure through you. Still, what the two cases have in common is both a self-regarding, and something other than a self-regarding, desire. When it is a matter of the best sort of sex, the “something other” is an other-regarding desire, a desire that another receive sexual pleasure through you; in the case of music-making, it is the excellent performance of the music.

Ideally, combining selfless love with erotic love can bring people the advantages of both. Diego felt excitement in the bullring and at the killing of the bulls. He also felt sexual excitement at orgasm with women. He first combined the two sources of excitement by masturbating before bloody, gory images on TV of women being killed and mutilated. He later combined the two sources of excitement through a desire to have orgasm with a woman who is actually killed at the moment of his orgasm.   While this desire is perverse, one combining erotic with selfless love is not. There is selfless satisfaction, if not excitement, at pleasing your beloved. There is sexual excitement at orgasm. Having orgasm with someone you love selflessly combines the selfless satisfaction with the sexual pleasure, thereby greatly increasing the total satisfaction. That is why the satisfaction of your sexual desire with someone you love selflessly can produce greater ecstasy than the mere satisfaction of your sexual desire. Combing selfless with erotic love is not protection against the dangers that erotic love poses, such as deteriorating into mere sexual desire, fostering jealousy, or becoming unrequited. However, it makes the benefits of erotic love greater thereby making it rational to endure its risks.

All of us know the power of erotic love, and the pain and suffering that lurk nearby. It is hard not to be jealous of someone you love erotically, and nearly impossible not to suffer terribly if that person never, or no longer, returns your love, no matter how comforting the reassurances of selfless love might sound, nor how intense the ecstasy of combined erotic and selfless love might be. In the commentary on Sony’s DVD of Talk to Her, Almodovar says in response to a remark by Geraldine Chaplin (who is the daughter of Charlie Chaplin and plays Katerina in the film) that “the beasts of passion” cannot be domesticated by love because “they are part of our nature and go beyond our reason.” Given the benefits of erotic love that Bertrand Russell describes, it is not irrational to pursue that sort of love, but it is also not irrational to fear that it will turn into an ugly beast. Almodovar presents us with the evidence for this claim by reminding us of the good and the bad that erotic love can bring.



Bruce Russell

Department of Philosophy

5057 Woodward Ave.

Wayne State University

Detroit, MI 48202











The Philosopher's POV

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