Live Flesh: Almodovar’s Melodrama, Starring Javier Bardem

live_flesh_posterLive Flesh (“Carne Tremula”), Almodovar’s twelfth film, is the most interesting among his mature melodramas.  The movie is perhaps more significant for allotting equally strong roles for male and female actors, and for Almodovar’s treatment of serious, relatively unexplored issues, such as disability, in addition to his recurrent explorations of love and desire.   Almodovar was praised by most critics for breaking new grounds in his restrained approach to characterization and in constructing a shapely narrative.

“Live Flesh” is also significant as the first Almodovar film to feature Penelope Cruz, who would become a major player in his repertory company.  Cruz was then mostly known for playing the pregnant girl in “Jamon Jamon,” made in 1992 by Almodovar’s rival Bigas Luna (who passed away in 2013). The film’s cast is interesting for its inclusion of inexperienced actors, such as Cruz and the young Javier Bardem (who would become an Oscar-winning actor, seen as the villain in the Bond picture, “Skyfall”), as well as world-renowned actors, such as Francesca Neri and Angela Molina, who brought rich cultural associations to their roles.

live_flesh_5_almodovarFor this film, Almodovar bought the rights to Ruth Rendell’s book, which is set in London, only to throw it away, like Hitchcock used to do to the source materials of his films.  The script, which deviates from the novel, is co-penned by Almodovar and the younger writer Ray Loriga, who was hired to assure greater authenticity and establish stronger connection with Spain’s younger audiences as Almodovar was nearing the age of 50.

The tale begins and ends with a birth, reaffirming the director’s view that for every death there is a new life. “Live Flesh” again demonstrates Almodovar’s use of binary oppositions.  In the first chapter, set in 1970, Victor, the son of an unmarried prostitute (Cruz), is born on a bus during a state of national emergency.  In the symmetrical ending, set in 1990, a newly formed couple, Elena and Victor, are about to have a child, also on the streets of Madrid, just like Victor’s birth two decades ago.

live_flesh_3_almodovarThe story takes place at the present time, when the 20-year old Victor (Liberto Rabal) works as a pizza delivery boy. Victor is excited about his prospective date with Elena (Francesca Neri), but she turns him down.  Like most of Almodovar’s determined and horny males, the unfazed Victor breaks into Elena’s apartment.  In the argument that ensues, Elena fires a shot but no one is injured.  In panic, Victor takes Elena hostage.  Sancho, the elder, drunkard cop of a couple of policemen, tries to grab the gun. Another shot is fired, this time injuring the younger cop, David (Javier Bardem), leading to Victor’s imprisonment for causing David’s paralysis.

live_flesh_4_almodovarReleased from prison, Victor seeks revenge against David and Elena, who are now married.  Victor works as a volunteer in a shelter for homeless children, which “happens” to be run by Elena.  Victor’s stalking of Elena angers David, who threatens him to stop–or else. Victor then meets Sancho’s mistreated wife Clara (Angela Molina), and they begin an affair. Clara reveals that it was Sancho who pulled the trigger because of her affair with David. Feeling responsible for his false imprisonment, Elena softens towards Victor and goes to bed with him. After confessing her betrayal, Clara flees, but the jealous Sancho tracks her down and they end up killing each other.

live_flesh_2_almodovarIn the pre-credit sequence, the ad slogan displayed on the bus in which Victor is born, states “Absolute Precision,” which may also describe the director’s strategy. Victor the baby is presented in a mischievous black-and-white parody of the NoDo and via newsreels from the Franco era.  The post-credit sequence introduces the main characters in their typical locales.  The drug-addict Elena is waiting for her dealer in a lavishly decorated apartment, while Bunuel’s “The Criminal Life of Archibaldo Cruz” is playing on the TV.  The two cops, David and Sancho, are seen patrolling the streets of Madrid.  Reversing age-related stereotypes, David, the younger, is sober and serious, whereas the older Sancho is unstable and alcoholic. Clara, Sancho’s brutalized wife, is seen in her terrace tending her plants, just like Pepa did in “Women on the Verge.”

yrnfmimjqz4Victor, who begins as Elena’s ignorant sex partner, seeks access to her apartment, feeling she had used him for sex and then dumped him.  Once again, Almodovar contests socio-sexual stereotypes by showing women as sexual aggressors and men as their more submissive partners.  In the book, Victor is a psychotic serial rapist, but Almodovar presents a more multi-nuanced character.  Victor is played by the rising star Liberto Rabal, cast in the kind of role that Antonio Banderas used to play, innocent adolescents (“Women on the Verge”), or sexy and disturbed youths (“Tie Me Up!”).

live_flesh_1_almodovarInfluenced perhaps by Hitchcock’s masterpiece, “Shadow of a Doubt,” the doubling principle is put into effect: There are two cops, two shootings, two deaths, two births, even two voice-over narrations. The tale begins on Christmas with Franco’s Minister Manuel Fraga announcing the suspension of the few civil liberties Spaniards had under the dictator.  And it closes symmetrically on Christmas, two decades later, with Victor’s voice-over:  “A long time ago we stopped being in Spain.”  The birth, which could be read as Almodovar’s version of The Nativity, also bears political dimensions as it occurs towards the end of the Franco regime.

In Rendel’s book, the handicapped is sexually impotent, having been traumatized, like Norman Bates in “Psycho,” by witnessing a primal scene between his parents.  But Almodovar changes that: In a bathroom scene, David makes love to Elena through oral sex.  For Almodovar, a steady satisfying sexual bond between the physically abled and the disabled is not an insurmountable problem.[i]

As noted, male frontal nudity is still the biggest taboo in cinema.  Banderas had never consented to frontal nudity in Almodovar’s film, not even in the 2011 “The Skin I Live In.”  And in the 2004 “Bad Education,” the Mexican sex symbol and actor, Gael Garcia Bernal (“Y Tu Mama Tam Bien,” in which he is seen masturbating with a peer) agreed to appear in tight white underwear while emerging out of a pool, but not fully naked, or seen engaged in anal intercourse.  Liberto Rabal, Spain’s sex icon at the time, however, did consent, and he is briefly shown nude against smoky flames, when he gets out of the shower to extinguish a fire in the kitchen. There is no particular dramatic reason for Rabal’s nakedness, other than perhaps please Almodovar’s core audience of gay and other curious viewers.  Liberto is the grandson of the vet actor Francisco Rabal, who had played the youthful senorito in Bunuel’s1961 masterpiece, “Viridiana,” a shrewd piece of casting, which adds extra-filmic resonance.

As played by Francesca Neri, the famous Italian actress, Elena goes through radical transformation from a junkie to a loyal wife to a social worker.  Clara, the abused wife seeking sex outside her loveless marriage, is played by Angela Molina, who had appeared in Bunuel’s last film, “That Obscure Object of Desire,” as a foil to Carole Bouquet, who played the same character.  Bunuel’s 1977 film, in which two actresses played the same part, also had inspired the casting strategy of Todd Haynes in “I’m Not There.” Other actors also bring rich cultural baggage associated with Bunuel. Angela Molina is remembered by many from Bunuel’s anti-clerical “The Criminal Life of Archibaldo Cruz” (1955), whose narrative, just like “Live Flesh,” also deals with the issue of taking responsibility for a killing; a scene from that picture is seen on Elena’s TV screen.

The narrative’s organizational principle is circularity.  The story begins and ends on the high holiday of Christmas, signifying birth and renewal.  The two lovers begin their interaction in casual sex but end up living together twenty years later.  Victor, the baby born on a bus, becomes a father, and Eleana the daughter becomes a mother who, like Victor’s mom, also gives birth in public.

Masculinity is portrayed in revisionist, varied and deeper ways than has been the norm in the work of Almodovar, who would explore other dimensions of manhood in “Talk to Her.”  Tough, brutal males, such as Sancho, are contrasted with sensitive and tender ones like David. Moreover, in this film, the men, just as the women, are capable of changing their behavior to accommodate their partners.  One of the most moving scenes depicts Victor’s entrance into his car, which involves folding and stowing his wheelchair.  Almodovar shows respect for portraying the everyday lives of the disabled and those around them. As the disabled David, the great actor Javier Bardem displays remarkable dignity, patience, and endurance.

The existence of mutually satisfying love is rare in Almodovar’s work.  “Live Flesh” represents a point of departure, even though Almodovar insists that reciprocal love is possible only when the individuals involved are willing to take responsibility for their actions. In this film, real love materializes when the couple search and find the truth in a series of Almodovarian confessions about the shootings, which have affected all the characters.  In placing his domestic melodrama against a specific political context, Almodovar indicates the importance of Spain’s shift from dictatorship to democracy.  Despite the death of one couple, the happy ending of the other one emphasizes the movie’s ultimately upbeat tone.  Victor and Elena, like Spain, are better human beings at the tale’s conclusion, (re)starting a relationship based on mutual respect.