Pedro Almodovar’s second feature film, Labyrinth of Passion (1982) is a screwball sex comedy that was not well-received upon its initial 1982 release in Spain but is seen now as something of a blueprint for the director’s later, better-honed farce, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988). By that time in his career, Almodóvar was more adept at focusing his wildly outrageous ideas into a coherent whole. Labyrinth of Passion instead shows a burgeoning artist throwing a mélange of colorful, amusing images onscreen that succeed more in fits and starts. Almodovar said at the time that his freewheeling style was influenced by Richard Lester’s Beatles films, A Hard Day’s Night and Help!
Set in Madrid, the movie centers on Sexilia (Cecilia Roth), who goes by Sexi, the nymphomaniacal daughter of a fertility specialist and expert in artificial insemination. Sexi cruises the streets, intersecting with a bisexual Middle Eastern prince who is trying to stay anonymous as well as a plethora of Almodóvar’s favorite types of characters – street hustlers, punks, drag queens, drug dealers, and the like. When Sexi sees a shrink to try and cure her sex obsession, she is told that she is incestuously attracted to her father – and that the shrink is, too.
Some fifty characters bounce around the film, with story threads involving terrorists, efforts to obtain others’ sperm, and all forms of sexual craving. Almodóvar’s ideas focus around the fluid nature of identity and the notion that individuals, not ruling cultures, define sexual desire. As the filmmaker later reflected, “the main problem is that the story of the two leads is much less interesting than the stories of all the secondary characters. But precisely because there are so many secondary characters, there’s a lot in the film I like.” Almodóvar himself appears as one character, a transvestite pop singer clad in leather.
But the most notable cast member is Antonio Banderas in his first feature film as Sadec, a gay Arab terrorist with a hyper sense of smell. Banderas would go on to become a major international star, and as of 2020 he has worked with Almodóvar seven times, but in 1981 he was a minor stage actor in Madrid. He later recounted to The New Yorker that he was sitting in a café one day with friends when Almodovar approached him and said, “You should do cinema. You are very romantic and have a romantic face.” Afterwards, Banderas asked his friends if anyone knew who the man was. “He’s called Pedro Almodóvar,” someone said. “He made one movie, but he’s not going to make any more.” Two days later, Almodóvar showed up at Banderas’s theater dressing room and asked him if he would take a role in Labyrinth of Passion.
Almodovar’s first feature, Pepi, Luci, Bom (1980), had been made on a shoestring and poorly received, and for this second film he had more money at his disposal but the result was again derided by Spanish critics. After Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown became a global 1988 hit, including in the United States, Labyrinth of Passion finally got an American release in 1990 – and positive reviews. “This film also shows off the bright, gaudy visual style, the breezy manner, and the exuberant energy that are Mr. Almodóvar’s particular virtues,” wrote Janet Maslin in The New York Times. “Almodóvar approaches comedy the way others approach nuclear fission: with confidence that if enough particles bombard one another with sufficient energy, sooner or later something is bound to explode. His characters collide wildly, furiously, comically.”