The career of writer-director Pedro Almodóvar continues to confound those who would pigeonhole him, and reward those who remain faithful to his mercurial development.
With The Flower of My Secret (1995) and Live Flesh, Almodóvar's work reached a remarkable stage of artistic richness and emotional immediacy – a combination of complexity and simplicity which only the great masters like Luis Buñuel and Alain Resnais have ever achieved.
The first mark of Live Flesh's specialness is in its unclassifiability. Almodóvar is well beyond the tidy limits of a genre, a set style, or the usual choice between comedy and drama. This film moves from hilarity and outrageousness to searing tragedy and back again, over and over, without a single uncomfortable transition. The actors – as always, a colourful and merry band – form a perfect ensemble.
The story skips boldly across years and decades, sketching an entire social history of Spain in the merest background details. Víctor (Liberto Rabal) is a young man who has been behind the eight ball for most of his young life. Emerging from prison, he plans revenge against those who – one day, tangled up in the machinations of cruel fate – helped make his existence a misery.
The object of Víctor's hopelessly infatuated desire is Elena (Francesca Neri). A junkie turned respectable, she has married David (Javier Bardem), one of the cops who put Víctor away, now a paraplegic because of the violent confusion of that fateful day. Víctor insinuates himself into the life of the sad and frustrated Clara (Ángela Molina) – once David's lover, as her angry husband Sancho (José Sancho) has always suspected and resented.
As the years pass, the plot twists and turns in often outlandish and surprising ways – with Víctor, for example, transforming himself from a young miscreant into a "great lover", with powerful results. At first glance, one might label this material soap opera or melodrama. But Almodóvar, for all the rich humour of his vision, does not condescend to melodrama via camp irony or cartoonish excess.
As Nicholas Ray, Douglas Sirk, Vincente Minnelli or King Vidor did in the Old Hollywood days, Almodóvar serves up this story and these people directly, without the defensive mechanisms deemed necessary to allay the anxieties and squeamishness of a modern audience. And he plunges us into such an emotionally-stoked world because, for him, the very highest issues are at stake.
For several decades now, the word humanist has been a term of abuse in intellectual circles – used to signify an attitude to life and society that is wishy-washy, unengaged, apolitical. Almodóvar, however, is contemporary cinema's greatest humanist, because his vision of human experience is as tough as it is forgiving, as inclusive as it is concentrated.
No feeling – however base, extreme, violent or perverse – is foreign to Almodóvar's characters. They live from the urgings of impulse, and take the life-long consequences that come as a result. His films are full of reckless moments – one-night stands, stray bullets, blurted confessions, obsessions born in an instant. No matter how foolish their acts or decisions, no matter what errors they commit, these histrionic beings accede to their highest humanity by virtue of their passions.
Almodóvar is one of the few screen artists who respects the intense differences between people – differences of class, ideology, religious belief, sexual preference – while gathering them all up within the wisdom of a generalised humanity. Nowhere is this more evident than in Live Flesh's depiction of gender.
Men and women are eternally different beings for Almodóvar, and he celebrates the spark, the thrill and the comedy of that difference in every scene of Live Flesh. Yet no director in world cinema today is more ferociously equal in his attitude towards men and women (as well as gay and straight).
Each person's biology and cultural conditioning matters, but the propensity for grand passion and the drama of deep feeling is restricted to no one class, gender or constituency. We could not be further from the adolescent, divisive, so-called radical posturing of, for example, Ana Kokkinos' Head On (1998).
Almodóvar's characters act from the heart, but they must learn how to negotiate the vicissitudes of fate, and cultivate an attitude of acceptance. The tyrannical urge to control helps no one in Live Flesh; as one character finally confesses to another: "A man can hold on to neither his youth, nor the women in his life."
Almodóvar proposes, for all his characters, a more fluid approach to life and love – and the lesson is profound.
essay: Families and Friends
© Adrian Martin September 1998