Carne Tremula : Spain 1997 : Pedro Almodovar : 103 mins
Live Flesh is about passion, love, hate, revenge, marriage, money, politics, jealousy, sex, infidelity and wheelchair basketball. Or rather, a film that’s so busy juggling these elements that it never bothers to reach too deeply into any of them: a triumph of style over substance? Perhaps – but a kind of triumph all the same.
Very loosely adapted from Ruth Rendell’s novel, the plot follows the ups and downs of Victor Rabal (Liberto Rabal) from his birth on a Madrid bus in 1970. Twenty years later, he’s grown into a handsome, happy-go-lucky lad, but a one-night stand with wayward rich girl Elena (Francesca Neri) leads to a violent confrontation with cops David (Javier Bardem) and Sancho (Jose Sancho). As Victor and Sancho struggle with a gun, a shot is fired, leaving David paraplegic.
Victor spends six years in jail, his desire for revenge heightened when he sees David on TV, national hero as a key member of Spain’s victorious paralympic wheelchair basketball team. Even worse, cheering him on from the stands is Elena, now his wife. On release from prison, Victor drifts into an affair with Sancho’s dissatisfied missus, Clara (Angela Molina), and starts working at the children’s home owned and run by Elena. David isn’t too pleased by these turns of events – and neither is Sancho…
There’s a fair bit more to this story than even this crowded synopsis can convey – despite having only five proper characters, Live Flesh is so packed full of incident that it almost becomes a parody of passionate melodrama: operatic popular songs on the soundtrack do their bit to exaggerate the mood even further.
An early shot of Elena playing solitaire with a tarot-like pack of cards hints that we’re in the classic film noir territory where destiny is all-important.
Victor (an aggressively charismatic performance from Rabal) certainly fits the noir bill as an essentially decent, ordinary bloke whose life is turned upside down after encountering a femme fatale. He makes a telling contrast with the introverted, physically restricted David – an interesting use of the outsize Bardem, with that freakishly large, expressive face (Bardem’s mother Pilar pops up in the prologue as the ‘midwife’ who helps Victor’s mother – Penelope Cruz! – through her labour.)
Crucially, Almodovar controls the implausible shenanigans with a confident, engagingly light panache. He springs a fantastic visual joke early on when a gun goes off in Elena’s apartment, coinciding with an almost identical discharge seen on her TV set. But a similar conceit later, when David and Victor pause during a punch-up to cheer on a goal in a televised football game, falls completely flat. The whole film is similarly hit and miss: in the end all the entertaining quirks Almodovar accumulates around the characters remain just that: quirks, diverting but arbitrary.
While the wheelchair basketball idea is an original twist, it’s ultimately as inconsequential as the Bulgarian learnt by Victor in the slammer. The epilogue, meanwhile sees Almodovar tacking on a political subtext that feels like it’s strayed in from another film altogether. Despite these problems, Live Flesh is an unusual thriller from one of European cinema’s most striking talents – though God only knows what Ruth Rendell made of it.
29th December, 2001
(seen on video, Dec-28-01)
by Neil Young
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