Pedro Almodóvar’s Live Flesh , based on the novel by Ruth Rendell, fully lives up to its lurid title though without ever succumbing to the soft-core vices of sleaze and sordidness. The bright, gaudy colors of the settings, and the extreme gravity and sincerity of the characters, manage to detoxify the sexually melodramatic proceedings that leave two of the five major characters dead and the other three genuinely remorseful. I have not read the particular Rendell novel on which Live Flesh is based, but I am sure writer-director Mr. Almodóvar has added many Spanish variations, especially in the realm of Latin machismo.
The movie is framed by two harrowing childbirth sequences, the first in the Madrid of 1970 at a moment of maximum repression by the Falangist regime of Francisco Franco and the second in the happier Madrid of 1995. Our eventual hero, Víctor Plaza (Liberto Rabal), is born in a bus to a prostitute, and grows up in a state of lower-class, albeit noncriminal punkdom. Through a chance encounter in a seedy bar, he becomes infatuated with Elena (Francesca Neri), the drug-addicted daughter of an Italian diplomat. Through a series of escalating misunderstandings in the course of which a diplomat’s loaded revolver goes off accidentally, Víctor finds himself wrongfully confronted as Elena’s assailant by two plainclothesmen with as yet unrevealed psychopathic secrets of their own.
David (Javier Bardem) and Sancho (José Sancho) are a study in contrasts as partners. David is calm, commanding and ambitious; Sancho is bitter, sullen and resigned. David is sober and serious, Sancho is a jealous drunk, certain that his coldly unloving and consequently abused wife, Clara (Angela Molina), is cheating on him. What we don’t know for a very long time is that David is Clara’s lover and that Sancho knows it and is responsible for the “accidental” firing of the gun during the scuffle surrounding Elena, which leaves David a paraplegic and for which “crime” Víctor is imprisoned for six years.
During this violent course of events, Elena falls in love with David at first sight, and later marries him out of a feeling of guilt for his condition. But this is only the beginning of the bizarre complications that ensue. David becomes a national basketball hero in the wheelchair Olympics, with Elena proudly cheering him on from the stands. Víctor sees them both on the prison television set, and vows revenge, but it is a naïve and pathetic revenge, one that makes Víctor a thoroughly sympathetic character for the audience.
In the context of the larger symbolism of Spain’s liberation from Franco’s tyranny, Víctor’s regeneration as a loving, caring, educated and enlightened human being enables him to triumph over the jealousies triggered in David and Sancho by Víctor’s release from prison. Víctor’s explicit carnal education comes from none other than Clara. It enables him to seduce Elena, whereas he once failed. But he doesn’t love Clara, and he finally rejects her (in his one cruel action), and unintentionally dooms her and Sancho both to mutual annihilation.
With Live Flesh , Mr. Almodóvar bids to continue an ever controversial line of stylistic irony and dark humor that one can trace from Douglas Sirk in his delirious Ross Hunter and Rock Hudson period, through Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s shallow-field pathological masterpieces, and, even earlier, to the surrealist and fetishistic influences of the sublime Spanish master, Luis Buñuel.
Yet, it may ultimately be Ms. Rendell’s novelistic flair for obsessive behavior that makes the intertwined characters in Live Flesh resonate more deeply and more sympathetically than their campy counterparts in his previous films. The director devotes a great deal of screen time to David’s ingenious and energetic utilization of his wheelchair in the most creatively efficient manner imaginable. At times, the detail of this mode of operation suggests a rehab semi-documentary in the making. But when Elena frankly acknowledges that she has had strenuous sex with Víctor for an entire night but that she will stay with David if he still wants her, simply because he needs her, we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that David will refuse Elena’s pity. Why? Because we have watched him at great length heroically overcoming his infirmity. For David as with the other four characters, actions speak louder than words. That’s what genre narrative is all about.
Mr. Almodóvar is, as always, better and more deeply concerned with men than with women, but he comes closer here to an equal balance of feeling between the two sexes than he ever has before, by granting his female characters intelligence as well as intuition, wisdom as well as passion, warmth as well as flash. And his colors are richer and subtler, his scale of creation major rather than minor. All in all, Live Flesh is a piece of sweetly loony cinematic music.
Dressed to Be Killed
Alex van Warmerdam’s The Dress strains so hard for its tenuous conceits that it eventually threatens to become La Ronde with a hernia. This Dutch film has had many cinematic and theatrical predecessors with its merry-go-round mechanism for weaving many stories together from a common thread. In The Dress there are many threads in both the mechanism and the 11 tattered characters that come under its spell. We follow one dress through all of its ill-fated owners. The names of the performers-Henri Garcin, Ariane Schluter, Alex van Warmerdam, Ricky Koole, Rijk de Gooyer, Elisabeth Hoijtink, Olga Zuiderhoek, Eric van Donk, Khaldoun Elmecky, Rudolf Lucieer and Annet Malherbe-meant nothing to me before I saw The Dress , and very little more after. But two of the younger actresses amply justify the lustful designs of their maddened male pursuers. Indeed, unbridled lechery seems to be the thematic path of least resistance for Mr. van Warmerdam’s largely incoherent enterprise.
Still, the production notes tell me that The Dress won the Fipresci, the prize of the International Film Critics, at the Venice Film Festival, and the Dutch Film Critics’ Prize as the best Dutch film at the Netherlands Film Festival. Furthermore we are told that the 45-year-old writer, designer, director and actor was co-founder of two internationally renowned theater companies, and has participated prominently in many different media, supposedly on the cutting edge of social criticism and avant-garde aesthetics. So has something been lost in the subtitles, or am I too much in the movie mainstream to swim with or even against Mr. van Warmerdam’s baffling currents?
There is a sweaty nastiness in most of the episodes that leads me to suspect that Mr. van Warmerdam is not exactly enchanted with his countrymen, and their supposedly liberal and tolerant society. His Holland is surprisingly empty for the notoriously crowded nation I have been led to expect on the screen. His is certainly not a tourist’s Holland, nor the garden of delights into which drug users from all the world have reportedly swarmed.
As one sequence stumbled clumsily and illogically into the next I began to wonder if it was I who had stumbled into a postmodern spectacle without rhyme or reason and thus lacked the critical vocabulary to dissect it. Disconnect, disconnect, seems to be the movie’s motto. Perhaps there is some hidden absurdist meaning in the failure of two determined would-be rapists to catch and subdue two remarkably athletic maidens who should be entered in the next Olympics as long-distance runners. Curiously, the only passionate relationships in the film involve aged couples embracing at the edge of eternity.
At other times, I felt a tendency in the mise en scène to get bogged down in graphics of backgrounds at the expense of the narrative in the foreground, thereby reminding me that the most famous Dutch director in history is still the eminent documentarian Joris Ivens (1898-1989), who, like Mr. van Warmerdam, often seemed exasperated by his own perhaps too complacent people. Also, Dutch painting through the ages casts a large shadow over the other arts, making them comparative supplicants in world culture.
A Correction Corrected
In my review of Arguing the World in the Jan. 19 Observer , my “Trotskyists” was changed to “Trotskyites.” I am too much of an Orwellian to allow this linguistic lapse to remain unchallenged. It was the late Dwight Macdonald as an avowed Trotskyist who instructed me that “Trotskyists” were what Trotskyists called themselves, and “Trotskyites” were what Stalinists called them.