Live Flesh (1997)

D: Pedro Almodovar
S: Liberto Rabal, Javier Bardem, Francesca Neri

Promising a tamer, more mature Pedro Almodovar, Live Flesh may fill some viewers with apprehension and disappointment and others with cautious interest. In the final analysis, it should please both camps at least in some part and being based on a novel by Ruth Rendell it might even lure a new audience to the Spanish enfant terrible whose work has energised the European Art House throughout the last decade.

A young man shoots a police officer during a struggle in the apartment of a junkie and is sent to prison. By the time he is released six years later, the junkie has reformed and married the cop, who was paralysed and has since become a paraolympic basketball champion. But all was not as it seemed to be on that fateful night, and now the truth is set to emerge with destructive and/or redemptive results for everyone concerned.

Though many reviews searched desperately for angles which might link this film with Almodovar's more outrageous and convoluted works of the past this is actually a fairly straightforward film. Almodovar applies his grasp of the medium and his distinctive visual style to the telling of a tale with a strong plot with an easily identifiable emotional and moral base. Though there are some leaps in time in the opening section and though he transforms an English story into a metaphor for the development of Spain in the post-Franco era simply by including an opening and closing speech with refers to the atmosphere of terror circa 1970 (when the central character is born as the film opens), the film proceeds from cause to effect, act to consequence with ease and satisfying inevitability, resulting in a happy ending which does not feel contrived or undeserved despite the bloodletting and extramarital escapades which have preceded it.

It is arguable that a subversive surrealist streak nonetheless underlies all of this, and the colours and textures Almodovar and cinematographer Affonso Beato employ to create their visual world are as vivid and erotic as ever. The motivations of the characters are often made to seem more nebulous than they really are, and with the addition of one or two lines of inappropriate dialogue (from a script by Almodovar, Ray Loriga and Jorge Guerricaechevarria), the film occasionally slips in a moment of pause which keeps you aware that there are systems of meaning in operation which extend beyond the mechanics of storytelling. But like Bunuel's best work (including Los Olvidados), the film holds together as narrative and effectively articulates themes and ideas on a surface level regardless of what else may be going on. It is certainly less frenetic than some of the director's work, but it nonetheless moves swiftly for an hour and forty minutes. The performances are generally effective, and with the editing allowing time for subtle undercurrents to show themselves, it is in many ways deeper than what has gone before. The result is a stylish dark drama which should appeal to most audiences.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.