LIVE FLESH

Directed by Pedro Almodovar

Written by Almodovar, Ray Loriga and Jorge Guerica Echeverria

Based on the novel by Ruth Rendell

With Liberto Rabal, Javier Bardem, Francesca Neri, Angela Molina and José Sancho

Distributed by MGM

***

The Sunday after LIVE FLESH opened in New York, the front page of the NEW YORK TIMES' Arts & Leisure Section tagged an article on Almodovar with the headline "Pedro Almodovar grows up." Both the 1995 THE FLOWER OF MY SECRET and LIVE FLESH are unmistakable testimonies to this growth, but I'd phrase things a little differently. Judging from these films, Almodovar (the man, the director) has grown apart from Almodovar (the celebrity, the auteur). In THE FLOWER OF MY SECRET, he created a character who wrote trashy romance novels under an assumed name; LIVE FLESH is no romance novel, but it feels rather different from the "outrageous" kitschy melodramas that made Almodovar's reputation. Had he left the directorial credit off and shot it with a French cast, it could pass for a Chabrol film.

LIVE FLESH begins in media res, plunging us into a particularly dreary 1970 New Year's Eve. The streets are filled with festive decorations but no one is outside, thanks to Franco's declaration of a state of emergency. A pregnant woman frantically flags down an off-duty bus, giving birth to a boy on board. Cut. Twenty years later, her son Victor (Liberto Rabal) is working as a pizza delivery boy. After having a "really great fuck" with the ditzy junkie Elena (Francesca Neri) in a nightclub toilet, she forgets about a date they made. Desperate to see her again, he shows up at her apartment and sets in motion a chain of mishaps that culminates in a shoot-out. Cut. While Victor languishes in jail, he watches David (Javier Bardem), the cop that he shot and paralyzed, in a wheelchair basketball game on TV.

The film never stops for breath until a half hour has passed. Up until that point, it offers few clues about its characters. (Only gradually does one learn that Elena is the wealthy daughter of an Italian diplomat and that Victor's mother was a prostitute.) When Victor gets out of jail, everything is different . The consequences of that awful night have changed the lives of everyone involved: Victor, David and Elena (now married), David's abusive, alcoholic ex-partner Sancho (José Sancho) and his wife Clara (Angela Molina). Before the shoot-out, Victor had been watching Luis Buñuel's THE CRIMINAL LIFE OF ARCHIBALDO DE CRUZ. This film, a typically perverse Buñuelian portrait of (sexual) obsession and (Catholic) guilt taken to the point of pathology, casts a shadow over LIVE FLESH. When Victor begins an affair with Clara and volunteers at the children's shelter that Elena funds, a familiar pattern seems to be set in place: Victor's spiraling obsession can only end in tragedy.

To a certain extent, these expectations are fulfilled, but they're also subverted. When the final scene of LIVE FLESH (another birth scene and New Year's celebration) rolls around, one finally understands why the film spent so much time showing the circumstances of Victor's birth. The stories of Victor, David and Elena are all stories of different kinds of rebirth: adjusting to life as a paraplegic or an ex-convict, recovery from heroin addiction. The stories of Sancho and Clara are far darker ones, but LIVE FLESH is optimistic enough to suggest that there's nothing inevitable about a tragic end to these patterns of obsessive desire. These stories are also the stories of the rebirth of Spain. In an oblique way, LIVE FLESH is also a political film: a warning against trying to escape the problems of the present day by romanticizing the tyranny of the past.

Ironically, LIVE FLESH opened the same day as Alex van Warnerdam's THE DRESS, an awful Dutch film that apes Almodovar at his most "politically incorrect" without any genuine humor or sympathy for the women it degrades. Next to THE DRESS, LIVE FLESH looks like a masterpiece, but its optimism doesn't come without a price. If Almodovar desires to escape the expectations that come with an "Almodovar film," he runs the risk of merely making an impersonal film. THE FLOWER OF MY SECRET put an end to the floundering and confusion that produced HIGH HEELS and KIKA and inaugurated a new, relatively sober period in Almodovar's work. As accomplished as THE FLOWER OF MY SECRET and LIVE FLESH, they can't help seeming a little bland in the light of Almodovar's best 80s work. Nevertheless, there's something quite touching about the conclusion of LIVE FLESH. In these depressing times, it's a rare and welcome gesture: a vote of confidence in the present.