By Jim Gilles
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 4/17/22 – At the Motion Picture Academy on Saturday April 16 was a line-up of three films of Pedro Almodóvar in the on-going month-long retrospective of Almodóvar’s canon. Featured were The Flower of My Secret (1995), Kika (1993), and Live Flesh (1997). Notable in Live Flesh is the lead role given to then-upcoming actor Javier Bardem and the cameo appearance of Penélope Cruz in her first role in an Almodóvar film. Since his debut in 1980 with Pepi, Luci, Bom, Almodóvar had been the “bad boy” of Spanish cinema. His films have been offbeat, energetic, and wildly stylistic (often to the point of garishness). With titles like Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, and Kika, Almodóvar has constantly challenged his audience about some of the essential themes of life: sex, love, and violence. He pushes the envelope in a way that many film makers are uncomfortable even attempting.
With Live Flesh, based loosely on a novel by Ruth Rendell, Almodóvar made one of his strongest films that shows signs of restraint evident in nearly every frame of this movie. By toning down his visual flourishes and curbing his tendencies towards excess, Almodóvar gave us one of the finest examples of his work in the 1990s. “Live Flesh” is an entertaining picture that uses a quintet of fascinating characters to examine a few of the director’s favorite concepts.
The five principals come together on one fateful night in 1992 Madrid. Victor (Liberto Rabal) has fallen for a woman, Elena (Francesca Neri), whom he had sex with a week ago. Elena, however, wants nothing more to do with Victor, and, when he shows up at her apartment, she uses a gun to scare him away. A shot is fired and the cops are called. Arriving at Elena’s apartment are two partners, David (Javier Bardem) and Sancho (Jose Sancho), who are in the midst of a crisis in their friendship. Sancho, a chronic, abusive drunk, believes that his wife, Clara (Angela Molina), is having an affair, and he suspects David of being Clara’s lover. What happens when the police break down the door to Elena’s apartment sets off a chain of events that reverberate through time to a period four years later, when circumstances bring the characters together once again, albeit in a vastly different situation.
Live Flesh isn’t really a crime thriller. It’s more of an exploration of characters’ motives, secrets, and true emotions. While there is a little gunplay, the core of Live Flesh lies in the complexity of how these five individuals interact. They are all wrapped in a web of consequences, with each one hurting the others multiple times, and the strands around them growing ever thicker. These are rich, believable individuals involved in relationships that defy the facile conventions of what movies typically present as romances, friendships, and rivalries. The ending is surprising, not because it doesn’t fit, but because, knowing all that we do about the involved parties, it’s the perfect way to offer closure to the tale.
For the leads in Live Flesh, the director gives us five strong performers. The one who leaves the strongest impression is Italian actress Francesca Neri, who, as Elena, successfully balances fear, pity, and a deeply-rooted sense of longing. As Clara, Angela Molina (one of the stars of Luis Bunuel’s 1977 masterpiece, That Obscure Object of Desire) essays a woman looking for a little tenderness and a way out. Of the three men, Javier Bardem had the most difficult part – showing the dark side of a person we naturally have sympathy for. Jose Sancho smolders as the violent, conflicted Sancho, and, in the role with the most screen time, Liberto Rabal shows that while he may have the look and physique of a model, he has talent as an actor. In a brief prologue, Penélope Cruz has a cameo as Victor’s mother who gives birth to him in a bus in Madrid in 1970.
Not for the first time with “Live Flesh,” Almodóvar offers a controversial viewpoint that seemingly contradicts the romantic’s first rule of true love being the glue in long-term relationships. Time and time again, Live Flesh shows that “true love” is overrated. The married couples in this film love each other, but they’re hopelessly, helplessly trapped: One by a cycle of violence and the other by unwanted pity and selfless tolerance. Obsessive sex opens the door to freedom. Almodóvar isn’t denying the value of romance, but he’s emphasizing the complexities of any love-based relationship and affirming that sex is far from irrelevant.
One of the most delicious aspects of Live Flesh is its keen sense of irony. There’s also a fair amount of humor, some of which borders on the absurd (consider the scene where two men, who are exchanging blows, pause in the midst of their struggle to cheer when Spain scores a goal in a soccer game being shown on TV). Yet there is never a time when Almodóvar’s appreciation of offbeat comedy endangers the integrity of the characters or the story. Like the gorgeous cinematography (which is used to good effect to eroticize a sex scene), this is all part of Almodóvar’s stylistic package. Never has it been more impressive than here, where everything (not just the flesh) is vibrant with life.
There are really five acts to this tale, the first being in the year 1970 when the Spanish government declared a state of emergency and a young prostitute, Isabel Plaza (Penélope Cruz) give birth on a bus to a son who she names Victor. Twenty years Twenty years later, Víctor Plaza (Liberto Rabal) shows up for a date with Elena (Francesca Neri), a junkie with whom he had sex a week earlier. Elena is waiting for her drug dealer to arrive and orders Víctor to leave, eventually threatening him with a gun. Enraged, Víctor wrestles the gun from her; in the process Elena gets knocked out, and the gun goes off. A neighbor hears the shot and calls the police.
Two cops respond to the report. The older cop, Sancho (José Sancho), is an unstable alcoholic who suspects his wife Clara (Ángela Molina) of infidelity. The younger cop, David (Javier Bardem), is clean-cut and sober. Through the window they catch sight of Víctor physically struggling with Elena. Sancho is ready to storm the apartment, while David wants to call for a back-up. When they enter, Víctor holds Elena hostage at gunpoint. David tries to calm him down and get him to drop his gun, but Sancho sabotages his efforts by repeatedly threatening Víctor. Finally, David puts his gun to Sancho’s head and gets first Sancho and then Víctor to put down their guns. David orders Elena to flee. Sancho then lunges for Víctor, and as they wrestle for the gun it fires.
Two years later, Víctor, in jail, watches a wheelchair basketball match. David (Javier Bardem), now partially paralyzed from the gunshot two years earlier, is a star player in the 1992 Summer Paralympics. Elena (the same Francesca Neri), now his wife, cheers him on from the sidelines. Víctor has made good use of his time in jail, taking a correspondence course in education, working out, and enriching his mind with a variety of subjects, including the Bible. Four years later, he is released. His mother Isabel Plaza has died, leaving him some money and a house in an area scheduled for demolition.
Víctor visits his mother’s grave, where he encounters Elena at her father’s burial service. Without identifying himself, he briefly offers her his condolences. Before leaving the cemetery, he encounters Sancho’s wife Clara (Ángela Molina), who has arrived too late for Elena’s service. They leave together and she visits his apartment. They establish a tentative relationship.
Elena, now off drugs and operating an orphanage, tells David of her encounter with Víctor. David stops by Víctor’s house and warns him not to go near his wife. Víctor challenges him to prevent him from doing whatever he wants, but David punches him below the belt. David leaves, but he sees Clara arriving and watches from a distance. Clara, drawn by Víctor’s enthusiasm and good looks, agrees to teach him how to make love while pampering him with gifts and affection. She eventually falls in love with him.
Víctor is accepted as a volunteer by the orphanage, which accepts the qualifications he earned in prison and discovers he is very good with the children. Elena objects, but can offer no compelling argument against Víctor. David continues to trail Víctor and discovers that he works at his wife’s orphanage. He confronts Víctor again, and Víctor denies responsibility for firing the shot that put him in a wheelchair. He demonstrates how Sancho made him squeeze the trigger because Sancho knew David was having an affair with Clara. Afterwards, David tells his wife what Víctor said, admitting that he was having an affair with Clara.
The plot devolves into bitter break-ups by all the couples but follows the original novel of Live Flesh with a curious twist at the end with the irony that Almodóvar manages to give us about his characters.