Disappointingly for some, Almodóvar’s adaptation of British crime-writer Ruth Rendell’s 1986 novel (his first “adaptation” proper) turned out to be his straightest movie to date, both in terms of sexuality and tone. Nonetheless, Live Flesh remains an intelligent, engrossing entertainment that ingeniously translates Rendell’s novel into a Spanish context. The result is a more sober but still thoroughly distinctive brand of “Almodrama”.
The movie begins with the impromptu birth of our hero, Victor, on a Madrid bus in the middle of winter to a young prostitute, Isabel (Penélope Cruz, in a brief but memorable first appearance for Almodóvar). Flash-forward 20 years and Victor has morphed into the striking Liberto Rabal (possessor of “the fleshiest lips in the history of Spanish cinema,” according to Almodóvar). The doe-eyed Victor arrives at the apartment of Elena (Francesca Neri), a drug addict with whom he had a one-night stand and who he’s now obsessed by. Elena, however, has practically forgotten him. The ensuing struggle—which develops as Buñuel’s Ensayo de un Crimen plays on TV—serves to entangle the fates of Victor, Elena, the two policemen who arrive on the scene, David (Javier Bardem) and Sancho (Jose Sancho), and Sancho’s wife Clara (Angela Molina).
Focusing in large part upon the vengeful power-play between Victor and David, Live Flesh is, perhaps, Almodóvar most “masculine” movie, albeit one which offers a few superbly-drawn women’s roles. It’s the director’s most effective thriller, too, with a well-sustained atmosphere of tension and menace. The movie also boasts a fabulous, eclectic soundtrack—including an impressive sex scene scored to a deliriously OTT bolero performed by Chavela Vargas—and excellent performances from its leads. Rabal’s transformation from geeky 20-year-old to muscular stud-in-training is compelling, Francesca Neri radiates guilt and sensuality from every pore, and Angela Molina is moving as the abused, sorrowful Clara who flowers, momentarily, under Victor’s attention. Javier Bardem—perhaps the most imposingly physical of actors, confined to a wheelchair here—delivers a simply brilliant performance that challenges all kinds of stereotypes about “disability”. His David is a basketball champ and cunnilingus expert, a man both bluff and vulnerable, whose world is shaken by Victor’s reappearance. It’s a real shame that Almodóvar hasn’t collaborated with this quartet again.
Live Flesh’s political framework is less well-developed. The film opens in 1970 with a Government announcement of a State of Emergency affecting citizens’ “freedom of speech, residence and association” and ends in the mid-1990s with another birth and a celebration of a new Spain in which “people are no longer afraid”. It’s a glib moment that demonstrates Almodóvar’s lack of skill as a polemicist. But, overlooking the clunky ending, Live Flesh remains fluid, stylish, surprisingly moving and sexy as hell.