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He doesn't need much. Give the renowned Spanish black-humorist Pedro Almodovar the ex-junkie daughter of an Italian diplomat, a bitter ex-con who served six years for a crime he didn't commit, a beautiful former dancer, a good cop and a bad cop, and he'll come up with the most intriguing film noir ever set in the dark streets of, well, Madrid.
Throw in some sex, quite a lot of sex, actually--adulterous sex, beginner sex, paraplegic sex, secretly photographed mid-afternoon sex, sex in almost every locale but the Oval Office--and what you've got is the first sex thriller in which you come to expect that everybody will eventually get shot in the nude.
Translation: vintage Almodovar. He isn't quite the smiling assassin of church, state and middle-class morality that his countryman and artistic idol Luis Bunuel once was, but who could be? Now that Generalissimo Franco is long dead and free speech is all the vogue in Spain (even at Sunday Mass), Almodovar will do quite nicely as the herald of avant-garde sensibility in that country at the end of the twentieth century.
Did I mention sex between complete strangers in the lavatory of a discotheque?
Live Flesh, a provocatively titled film that apparently has no resemblance to the Ruth Rendell novel from which it was adapted, represents something of a comeback for Almodovar. It's been a decade since he made the brilliant farce Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and six years since the mordant High Heels, in which a self-absorbed actress and her newswoman daughter share the mother's former lover and the daughter's current husband. His three films after that were tamer stuff, but with Live Flesh, naughty Pedro returns to form--as salacious and daring as ever.
He begins, weirdly, with a prostitute giving birth on a city bus in 1970, on a night when Franco has suspended the civil liberties of all Spaniards. Then he flashes forward twenty years to show us that baby, Victor Plaza (Liberto Rabal) as a surly post-adolescent on the road to trouble. Sure enough, Victor's hot pursuit of the smacked-out rich girl Elena (Francesca Neri) takes him, fatefully, to her fashionable apartment. By chance, the level-headed cop David (Javier Bardem) and his drunken, wife-beating partner, Sancho (Jose Sancho), are also destined to wind up there. A couple of wayward gunshots later, Almodovar is ready to catapult us forward six more years.
It is now 1996. Racked by guilt, Elena has cleaned up her act and married the policeman David, who was paralyzed by a bullet on the fateful night at her place. She's Senora Goody Two-Shoes in other ways, too: She finances a child-care center and gives herself to causes. Meanwhile, the boy. Convicted of David's shooting, Victor Plaza's just getting out of jail--freshly equipped with a couple of new skills the old anarchist Bunuel might savor. Victor can now quote the Bible and, thanks to a cellmate, he can also speak patches of Bulgarian.
How long can it be until young Victor starts taking lessons in love from Sancho's resentful wife, Carla (Angela Molina)? How long until we learn that it was the nasty Sancho's own partner David who cuckolded him six years earlier? Or until the single-minded Victor worms his way back into Elena's changed life?
There you have it--the midnight cocktail of film noir served straight up since the 1940s: lust, guilt, revenge, betrayal and violence in equal measures. That Almodovar replaces the old standby greed with his brand of surrealism, a dash of politics and a full dose of sex only adds to the attraction. He puts us through enough psychological and carnal hoops to furnish five movies. It's all bound together by quirks of destiny, twists of accident and, because this is a moviemaker who thrives on the random oddity, wheelchair basketball. If you're betting that amid all this frantic bed-swapping and mounting sexual tension the pistolas will get used again, go to the pay window now.
What can we expect from a Spanish black-humorist fooling around with a time-honored American genre if not great big gobs of love and death?
To tell more of plot or players would be a sin. Suffice it to say that this talented cast, like all of Almodovar's casts, is at the peak of its form, clearly having a ball with rich and sultry mate-rial. The beautiful Neri is particularly splendid as the wild child seized by conscience, who must then battle her way back to a sort of equilibrium. Handsome Rabal is just right, too, as the tightly strung street punk who must transform his rage into redemption.
Along with the sex, you see (did I mention sex in the bathtub?), Pedro Almodovar again complicates his characters' lives beautifully--and ours. More power to him. It's nice to see this terrific filmmaker back at full strength.
Screenplay by Pedro Almodovar, based on a novel by Ruth Rendell. Directed by Pedro Almodovar. With Liberto Rabal, Francesca Neri, Angela Molina, Javier Bardem and Jose Sancho.
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