Live Flesh (Spain , 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Almodovar. To those familiar with his body of work, that name is more than just a way to identify one of today's premiere directors -- it offers valuable insight into the scope and intent of a movie. Since his debut in 1980 with Pepi, Luci, Bom, Almodovar has 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, Almodovar 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. Watch Tie Me Up! if you doubt this statement.

Now, however, there are indications that Almodovar is maturing. His 1996 effort, The Flower of My Secret, was surprisingly conventional (and somewhat stagnant as a result). With Live Flesh, based loosely on a novel by Ruth Rendell, Almodovar is back in fine form, yet signs of restraint are evident in nearly every frame of this movie. By toning down his visual flourishes and curbing his tendencies towards excess, Almodovar has created what might be the finest work of his career to date. Live Flesh is a superb, sublime motion 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 is really a mystery, which is why I won't give a more detailed plot description. This isn't a crime thriller, however -- it's 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 Live Flesh's leads, 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 (Jamon Jamon) has 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, Penelope Cruz (Belle Epoque) has a cameo as Victor's mother.

Not for the first time with Live Flesh, Almodovar 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. Almodovar 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 Almodovar'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 Almodovar's stylistic package. Never has it been more impressive than here, where everything (not just the flesh) is vibrant with life.

Live Flesh (Spain , 1997)

Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 1998-02-13
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Nudity, Profanity, Drugs)
Subtitles: Spanish with English subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1