starring Javier Bardem, Francesca Neri,
Liberto Rabal, Ángela Molina, Jose Sancho
It's alchemy, really: Pedro Almodóvar with a camera and a gorgeous Spanish actress accomplishes what Keith Jarrett accomplishes behind a Steinway, what a mad scientist achieves with a bunch of test tubes and some bubbling green shit — his frothy concoctions don't just spume over into sublime joy, they effloresce. There's a wide-eyed, gasping-for-breath, this-happened-and-then-OH-MY-GOD-this-happened quality to the way his tales unfold. He's a bricklayer, this patron saint of the distressed heroine — just when you've adjusted to his next plot development, he throws another revelation on top of that, followed by his next twist of fate, then another revelation; finally, he tops the whole thing off with yet another of his whirligig climactic arcs. Most filmmakers are like that bitchy girl with the loose twat, the one you text during last call when all other options for the night have failed — they've got the same three mechanical moves everyone else has and one peak is all you're lucky to get. Almodóvar, though, is so sensuous, so knowing in that barely-legal-Thai-massage-girl way of his, he's got you reaching peak after peak, your virility still spurting forth, dripping down your pants leg as you stumble into work the next day with that faraway smile on your face and breathlessly describe the experience to a friend.
Live Flesh gets the ball rolling with a hilarious-on-the-verge-of-poignant opening sequence that depicts a woozy prostitute (Penelope Cruz) with just enough time to throw on her slippers before giving birth to future Pizza Hut delivery boy Victor on a Madrid bus. Then, we shoot ahead twenty years to a single night of happenstance — the axis on which the rest of the story spins. Apparently, some truly transcendental trim belongs to drugged-out rich girl Elena (Francesca Neri). The single hit of it that she's given to the now-adult Victor (Liberto Rabal) has the lovestruck lad barging into her flat while she's awaiting her drug connection. He refuses to leave — hell, he's even swiped a pizza for her nourishment — and when she pulls a gun on him, he just digs his heels in further. Bitch popped his cherry — in a bathroom, no less — and, to Victor's mind, the least she could do is explain why she suddenly wants nothing more to do with him. What she explains to him is the fact that he was a lousy lay; the ensuing scuffle attracts cop David (Javier Bardem) and his partner Sancho. Victor, of course, responds like the even-tempered son-of-a-whore that he is: he puts Elena's own gun to her head. David and hair-trigger Sancho then pull their guns and, when all is said and done, David's in a wheelchair thanks to an errant bullet in his spine and Victor's doing a six-year bid for having had his finger on the trigger.
But wait! — as the late-night infomercials like to tell us — there's more! Victor didn't deliberately fire the shot that paralyzed David, his trigger finger was squeezed by Sancho while Sancho was trying to wrest the gun from him. And then — what do you know? — while Victor's plotting vengeance from a prison cell, Elena kicks her habit, ditches the blonde fright wig, opens a center for abused children and ends up married to paraplegic David, of all people. And then — what do you know? — it turns out that Victor's still carrying a torch for Elena. And then, it turns out that Sancho's nursing a dark secret related to his own unhappy marriage. And then, Victor's released from prison, starts stalking Elena and runs into Sancho's wife. And then... (Cue organ theme and a word from our sponsors.)
I have a couple of confessions: 1) I don't find the bulk of Live Flesh particularly believable and; 2) I don't particularly care. Live Flesh succeeds according to my definition of Pure Cinema, which is: films obeying nothing but their own blissfully cuckoo logic, films beholden to nothing save the insular worlds they've spun out of thin celluloid and made as real to us as our own routine-laden, death-and-taxes McLives for two hours. Pure Cinema couldn't give a lesser crap about kowtowing to whatever mundane reality we're probably watching movies to get away from in the first place; its whole raison d'être is in exploring states of mind and emotional plateaus in as uninhibited — as unrestrained — a manner as possible. "Realism" doesn't merely straitjacket this impulse; it chains it to a dungeon wall, feeds it stale bread and ass-rapes it. Almodóvar's method — as Spanish as paella, as quintessentially European as female armpit hair — is a method that takes all the volume and color and unexpressed passions that simmer boil-like beneath the skins of our real lives and cranks them up past ten. Conventional response is turned inside out — you don't mock an Almodóvar film for its brazen tango outside the constraints of your puny workday-commute-with-cup-of-Starbucks, you curse real life for not being more Almodóvar-like.
The plot, as it were, hinges upon the actions of unfaithful wives — one Tina Turner dying to get away from her Ike, one venerated like a saint while dying to err like a good old-fashioned human fuck-up. Victor's hotheadedness is redeemed by his naïveté — his clear worship of las mujeres, a resolute refusal to judge that's like an outgrowth of his own compassion for a mother who turned tricks to put bread on the table. Perhaps, the affection shown to him by the women he juggles — despite his initial sexual ineptitude — is some sort of motherly ray of benevolence sent beaming unto him from beyond the grave. Regardless, the touch is as sure as it is satirical: one never feels the need to damn Almodóvar's women for the affection they seek, nor do you feel sorry for Sancho or cuckolded cripple Javier Bardem, who can pull a mean Mike Jordan on the Paralympics b-ball court but can't keep his bon-bon of a wife to himself.
Of course, Elena's married David not only out of some form of Catholic penitence but also to take care of him. She's not just atoning for her days as a druggie, she's atoning for being the center of the incident that ended David's career as a cop. And no matter how devoted David is to her as a husband, no matter how skillfully he'd crack someone's skull for harassing her or how expertly he gives impromptu bathroom head, their relationship is always going to be that of the patient-caretaker — hardly the stuff that moistens panties. It's crystal clear why she confesses her infidelity to him: it's gotten tiresome up on that pedestal and she wants off. Perhaps, she'd even say it's for David's own good: "know me, the real me, the fucking flesh-and-blood woman you married, not this Mother Teresa with a scrub brush that you've made me out to be."
Granted, those of a certain ideological bent may intuit a sliver of patronization toward the ladies on Almodóvar's part. And, fond of his heroines though he may be, he's never once shied away from showing how crackpot irrational, how childishly impulsive women can be; how emotionally untethered and psycho-sexually drawn to the unhealthy they usually are. Hell, his narratives depend upon it. And yet, he's so connected to the humanity of his characters that nothing he does feels exploitative or curdles in your mind, post-viewing — it feels as natural watching his characters converse over a joint as it does watching a battery-operated toy scuba diver nestling itself in Victoria Abril's nether-regions or watching the shrunken character in a faux-silent film crawl inside of a giant vagina six times his size, to be with his lover for eternity.
True understanding between the sexes beckons. Disseminate the Almodóvar filmography just a touch wider and the collective yolk of mankind may yet learn to stop rolling its eyes whenever the fairer sex utters something other than "want coffee?" or "don't worry, I'll just take my morning-after pill." The love Almodóvar invests in his panoply of distressed heroines is enough to stir the cinders of boyhood infatuation smoldering inside every embittered male. It's a love so palpable, so infectious that it just might spill over into your personal life as a man: where once you heard an incessant stream of insecure blathering on auto-pilot, an aria of me me me, you may now imagine the rolled r's and saucy purr of an adorably bewildered Penelope Cruz. What once resembled a downy-breasted succubus slurping away at the lifeforce of your precious time and energy may now take on the contours of a Francesca Neri secretly dying for the saving grace of your hardy persistence.
Of course, it's all bullshit. That's cinema's stock-in-trade. It's what our savviest filmmakers dress up and fashion into false gods, before which entire cultures — including your humble narrator — readily genuflect. Bullshit at its friendliest fuels our dreams and, hell, if a man can't dream — if he can't enjoy the occasional happy ending provided by the agreeable massage-parlor whores of Hollywood before trudging home to hatchet-faced reality — he might as well reach for the Smith & Wesson with the single bullet in the chamber and call it a day, no?
©2011 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic