Over the past 30 years Spanish director Pedro Almodovar has succeeded brilliantly with both surreal comedy (Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown) and sensual dramas (Talk to Her, Volver). Though he’s had a couple of misfires—such as last year’s I’m So Excited!—most of his work evinces a palpable joy in the practice of his craft, a capacity for wonder and invention.
Whether comic or dramatic his films are driven by the exigencies of love and eroticism, and they embody a considerable range of content, narrative structure, and tone. Had Almodovar been born in Europe at the turn of the 19th century he might have ended up writing heady lyrical ballads or gothic novels; his temperament is in the classic and highly-colored style of the romantic raconteur. His films entice the viewer with a sense of daring: “You may find this strange tale of human passion almost impossible to believe. But it is true. Lean in. Look and listen closely. Judge for yourselves.”
Live Flesh is based loosely on a 1986 novel of the same title by Ruth Rendell. That Rendell’s work, widely appreciated for its chill, subtle psychological suspense, should pique the interest of a director known for overt emotion and high melodrama is not altogether surprising. Just as Rendell is much more than merely another mystery writer, so Almodovar is much more than the stereotype sometimes assigned him by feeble-minded critics (“irreverent,” “fiery,” “Latin bad boy,” etc.). What the two share is an interest in passion and the questions that passion raises in the human condition: Are we fated to live out our passions or do our passions determine our fate? And how much choice can we exercise in embracing either view?
The plot of Live Flesh is clever and bold, equally unafraid of coincidence and sudden twists. Like many a ’40s film, it has elements of both well-made melodramas like Mildred Pierce and those circular narratives such as Robert Siodmak’s adaptation of the Ernest Hemingway story The Killers that entrap the anti-heroes in a hall of mirrors or an unending series of puzzle boxes.
The film focuses on the criss-crossing destinies of a handsome young man named Victor who returns from four years in prison with a plan to free himself from his unrequited love for a woman who has scorned him; the man whom she has married and who has very particular reasons for being jealous; a weak and cynical police officer who abuses his wife who, in turn, turns to young Victor for solace. All of the actors—including Liberto Rabal as Victor and Francesca Neri—do excellent work, especially a young Javier Bardem as the discomfited husband.
Live Flesh is a roundelay of revenge, lust, adoration, and spiritual redemption—and you experience all of these aspects within the first 15 minutes. Almodovar’s mastery of visual storytelling reaches out and grabs the viewer at the onset and never lets go. The movie is among his five or six best to date; it has a riveting narrative style, a depth of humanity, and a keen sense of what cinema is all about.
It’s a film about passion made by a filmmaker who is passionate about film.
– Hadley Hury