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The Boston Phoenix Flesh Wounds

Pedro Almodovar is "Live" and well.

By Gary Susman

FEBRUARY 16, 1998: 

LIVE FLESH, Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar, based on the novel by Ruth Rendell. With Javier Bardem, Francesca Neri, Liberto Rabal, Angela Molina, and José Sancho. A Goldwyn Films release. At the Nickelodeon and the Kendall Square and in the suburbs.

Live Flesh finds one of film's most outrageous artists in the midst of his mature period. As in his previous film, The Flower of My Secret, Pedro Almodóvar has gracefully surrendered some of the frantic, impetuous camp of his youth for the more trenchant human insights of experience. Sure, much of Almodóvar's trademark overripeness remains, from the lurid title (in Spanish, it's Carne tremula, or "Quivering Flesh") to the swoony and soapy plot to the familiar selection of romantically obsessed characters (cuddly stalkers, jealous husbands, murderous adulteresses). But the tone is more world-weary and ruminative, the voice of a storyteller who has seen a universe where cruelty and betrayal exist alongside generosity and forgiveness.

The story, which Almodóvar adapted from a Ruth Rendell novel, muses on destiny, chance, and the consequences of actions that cannot be taken back. Our antihero is Victor (Liberto Rabal), a naive young man searching for sexual experience. A week after a brief, fumbling tryst at a nightclub, Victor tracks down the woman, an Italian diplomat's daughter named Elena (Francesca Neri). She turns out to be a junkie who doesn't even remember their previous meeting. They squabble loudly and the police are called. Two officers respond: David (Javier Bardem), a young, levelheaded cop, and his older partner Sanch (José Sancho), who drinks and is tormented by suspicions that his wife, Clara (Angela Molina), is cheating on him. There's a struggle and an off-screen gunshot. David is left paraplegic; Victor is sent to prison.

Two years later, Victor learns not only that David has married Elena but that he's become a famous Olympian playing wheelchair basketball. Upon his release, he vows to avenge himself by seducing and abandoning Elena. First, however, he must learn more about sex, and he meets a bored, married woman -- Clara, of course -- who's all too willing to teach him. He also sets about getting closer to Elena, finding himself a job at the children's shelter where she works.

Elena and David seem to have a happy, sexual (as Almodóvar casually shows us) union. But it becomes clear, both at home and at the shelter, that she's motivated primarily by guilt. When David discovers that Victor has approached his wife, he becomes jealous and vindictive. Victor, meanwhile, mellows and realizes he is incapable of malice. Yet he is also barely capable of love, as the smitten Clara discovers too late.

All this takes place in an desolate urban fringe that hardly seems the same city as the bright pastel Madrid of earlier Almodóvar films. His female-centered, often homoerotic point of view (he seems to have hand-picked Rabal as a successor to his last dual-appeal male starlet, Antonio Banderas) has been largely replaced with a masculine, hyper-heterosexual one. (There's a wonderfully absurd moment when David and Victor suddenly stop arguing and cheer together at what's happening in a soccer match on TV.) There are numerous references to the sexual satires of Luis Buñuel (from the TV airing of Buñuel's guilt-and-death-themed Rehearsal for a Crime to the casting of That Obscure Object of Desire's Molina), but also to the testosterone-filled melodramas of John Woo (especially in a climactic shootout).

For all its horror, Live Flesh does have many moments of surreal comedy as well as a few of the erotic tussles promised by the title. The seemingly convoluted plot proves unexpectedly symmetrical, with moments of discord mirrored by moments of reconciliation. The director bookends the film with two Christmas miracles, the birth of Victor on a bus in the shuttered, empty streets of the fearful Franco era, and the birth of Victor's child in a traffic jam in bustling present-day Madrid. Almodóvar, the most prominent exponent of the post-Franco cultural liberation, has known both the orderly repression of 25 years ago and the chaotic anarchy of today. And for all his newly sober criticisms of his own era's excesses, he knows he wouldn't go back.

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