Victor Plaza (Liberto Rabal), a prostitute’s son born in a Madrid bus – and on the very day in 1970 that Franco cracked down on personal liberties in Spain – gets in serious trouble as a young man, goes to prison, and emerges while still in his twenties, eager to claim his personal freedom in a newly energized country. Franco is dead, and the reborn Victor – the hero of Pedro Almodóvar’s Live Flesh – has a galvanizing effect on everyone he meets. A lover with dark eyes and a small goatee, Victor is neither evil nor violent, but he’s an inexperienced, hungry young man, and things go out of control when he’s around (Rabal has rough edges that his predecessor in such roles, the handsomer, more skilled but more predictable Antonio Banderas, did not have). Live Flesh, the best movie from Almodóvar since that Iberian screwball classic Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, turns into a happy joke about passion as destiny, eros as the dominating force in life. Apart from eros, of course, there isn’t much life in Almodóvar – the world of work and family hardly exists. But this Spanish bad-boy writer-director does the comedy of sexual passion better than anyone else. The entire history of Spanish repression and guilt seems to gather inside the heads of his men and women; they are naturally explosive in ways that Americans, with their lesser sense of sin, their hygienic attitude toward sex, could never be.
The story, which has been freely adapted from a Ruth Rendell novel, teases symmetry into an Almodóvarian pretzel. Eager to become the world’s greatest lover, Victor sleeps with the wives of the two Madrid policemen who put him in jail – first Clara (the great Angela Molina, of the tragic mask), who is much adored by her murderously obsessive husband, Sancho (Pepe Sancho), who loves a woman by trying to dominate her and, if necessary, kill her. Clara cheats on her husband in order to survive him, in both body and soul. Taking Victor in hand, she teaches him some of the more essential points of lovemaking, and under Clara’s tutelage, he becomes a saner and gentler fellow – a better man, in every sense. You might say he is healed by sex. Live Flesh, which begins and ends on Christmas, is about salvation; Almodóvar is eros’s last true worshiper.
Bored with Clara, Victor pursues the exquisite Elena (Francesca Neri), the woman who lured him into trouble some years earlier. It was at Elena’s house that the 20-year-old Victor accidentally shot Sancho’s partner, a promising young police detective named David (Javier Bardem). After the shooting, Elena, the daughter of the Italian consul, a rich girl dabbling in drugs, was so guilty over her own role in the affair that she married David, who had taken a bullet in the spine and was confined to a wheelchair. He’s a dynamite wheelchair basketball player and a thoroughly virile man in every sense but the literal one. So the adulterous joining of Victor and Elena is charged with the many varieties of desire, guilt, and ambivalence. It’s a scene worth waiting for – certainly the most sensual of Almodóvar’s heterosexual love scenes.
Almodóvar’s electric, brightly colored hyperbolic style has always teetered on the edge of camp and pornography. When he’s going well, he achieves a delirious freedom of tone; when not so well, he horses his way into silliness. In Live Flesh, Almodóvar has stabilized his manner somewhat. The movie is not as startling and fantastic as Law of Desire or Matador, but it doesn’t settle into commonplace realism either. For Almodóvar, sexual passion is part of the cruel joke of Spanish guilt and fatalism. Sex is a matter of life and death that drives people into absurd situations; Almodóvar’s most tragic scenes slide into farce (and vice-versa). These men and women seem not to possess “psychology” but only desire; that’s all the psychology Almodóvar needs. It’s a view of character that dissolves social reality. Would an elegant woman like Elena, the daughter of a foreign diplomat, marry a young policeman? Would she leave him for a young nobody? In this movie, such questions are beside the point. Almodóvar embraces the Mediterranean, or celebratory, view of sex, familiar from Boccaccio’s stories, in which eros is a democracy of matching bodies and temperaments. Society, money, status all shrink to nothing. Despite his erotic fixations, Pedro Almodóvar is the cinema’s last true innocent.