Diego (Nacho Martinez) gets his jollies masturbating over video nasties; instructing his fashion model girlfriend Eva (Eva Cobo) to play dead during lovemaking; and committing the occasional sexually motivated murder.
Maria (Assumpta Serna) gets her jollies picking up men for sex and killing them, by the application of a stiletto-length hairpin to the back of the neck, at the point of orgasm.
Diego is a former matador, his leg damaged in a goring, who now teaches bullfighting. His least promising student is Angel (Antonio Banderas), who faints clear away at the sight of blood. When Diego taunts him as to whether he's gay, Angel responds by trying to rape Eva. From trying to menace her with a Swiss army knife (he fumbles with the scissors and the corkscrew before he finds the actual knife blade) to ejaculating prematurely, he makes a complete hash of it and the only injury Eva suffers is a small cut when she slips on the rain-slicked pavement as she walks away. Predictably, it's enough to make Angel black out.
Nagged into taking confession by his sanctimonious and domineering mother, Angel continues at the police station what he commenced in the confessional. With a major fashion show imminent and a lucrative overseas modelling contract in the offing, Eva doesn't press charges. Still consumed with guilt, desperate for some form of expiation or punishment, Angel confesses to Diego's murders.
Maria is a high-flying lawyer who takes Angel's case. She and Diego soon become drawn to each other, kindred spirits for whom sex and death are interlinked.
'Matador' drips eroticism and perversity from every frame. Assumpta Serna smoulders so intensely you begin to worry that she's a walking case of spontaneous human combustion. Nacho Martinez is a study in death-haunted libido, a cross between a matinee idol and the Marquis de Sade. Eva Cobo is sultry and lovelorn as the third point of the triangle.
Elsewhere, Eusebio Poncela does good work as the world-weary and moderately confused cop trying to make sense of it all, Carmen Maura makes the most of a slightly underwritten role as a case worker sympathetic to Angel, and Chus Lampreave is a hoot as Eva's cluckingly disapproving mother.
The melodrama is writ large - Almodovar explicitly references King Vidor's histrionic slab of masochism 'Duel in the Sun' - but so, frequently, is the humour. Angel's attack on Eva is the kind of thing that really shouldn't be funny (so too the rape in Almodovar's most maligned film, 'Kika') but the scene plays out so absurdly that it's not until Angel's fumblings with the Swiss army knife have incited laughter that you stop to wonder whether you should have laughed.
I'm put in mind of the "Singin' in the Rain" sequence in Kubrick's 'A Clockwork Orange' (still to come on the personal faves list): Alex (Malcolm McDowell) joyfully doing his song and dance routine as he viciously administers a kicking to one victim and gets ready to sexually assault the other is not normally the stuff of comedy; but the unexpectedness, the patent absurdity of it makes light of a horrible and reprehensible moment. It also thoroughly implicates the audience, because who up till this point hasn't guiltily been enjoying Alex's arrogant swagger, casual egomania and sarcastic dialogue?
'Matador' doesn't quite make the same point about audience complicity, but it still has the cojones to see things through to the end. The have-sex-and-die ethos, usually applicable to randy teenagers in generic stalk 'n' slash flicks, here provides an amoral, arousing, aestheticized finale.
Alongside 'Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down', 'Matador' is Almodovar's most sexually charged film; like that slightly less successful work, what could easily have been an another anonymous title in the "top shelf" section of the rental shop (what a mate of mine would call "a trouser arouser from the erection section") comes to life through the director's provocative humour.
And praise be for that! Were it not so funny, 'Matador' would be a despairing film. None of the characters are aware of what's important in life, so consumed are they by their wrong decisions: Diego and Maria are hellbent on symbiotic self-destruction; Angel is in denial of his sexuality and tries desperately to "be a man" (he trains as a bullfighter even though blood makes him faint); Eva gets sidetracked from her career because she can't get over Diego; Eva's mother tuts judgementally at every aspect of her daughter's life without ever treating her like a daughter; Angel's mother is so obsessed with religion that she, too, fails to treat Angel like a son. The backdrop to the film is as shallow as the characters are wrong-minded: a bullfighting academy, awash with machismo; a fashion show, where image is everything. It's fitting that the finale occurs during an eclipse, a red haze descending as all-pervasively as that which agitates Diego and Maria's minds.