In an interview in the current issue of Genre magazine, Pedro Almodsvar rejects the notion that his earlier films, like "Law of Desire," were gay movies. He's right. Almodsvar was describing -- and celebrating -- crazed states of passion too familiar to most of us to be the province of only one sexual orientation. On the other hand, his new film, "Live Flesh," sure is a straight movie. Not heterosexual, but conventional. What's weird about "Live Flesh" is that Almodsvar plays it straight despite the twists and revelations of the noir plot that offer him plenty of opportunities to hit the gloriously deranged heights of his earlier work.
"Live Flesh" was loosely adapted from a novel by British mystery writer Ruth Rendell. She and Almodsvar are a strange fit. He has always loved characters who are too emotional, too dramatic, too passionate, too everything. You could imagine that, in action, the director, like his characters, was permanently flushed. Rendell specializes in coolly, even morbidly, detached tales of mayhem. The O. Henry-meets-Grand Guignol twists of her most characteristic work (like the novel "A Judgment in Stone") feel like they've been thought up by someone with ice water in her veins. (Once, when I worked in a bookstore, I suggested Rendell to a fan of British mysteries. The woman visibly shuddered and exclaimed, "She's sick!")
I haven't read the Rendell book that's the basis for this film, but Almodsvar can't be accused of not making the material his own. "Live Flesh" isn't a cool film, or a detached one, and the agitated comic tone of the opening sequence promises that the director is back in form. It's 1970, and Madrid is under a state of emergency declared by Franco. A young woman in a rooming house goes into labor, and her older landlady takes her out to the deserted nighttime streets to flag down a bus that will bring them to the hospital. But the baby won't wait, and Almodsvar uses the expectant mother's distress, her landlady's no-nonsense coaching and the bus driver's nervousness about the birth messing up his vehicle for some raunchy ping-ponging humor that's also rather sweet. (Part of the reason you laugh is that Almodsvar keeps making you think you're about to see something really gross.)
There's still reason for hope when the picture suddenly jumps ahead 20 years and that newborn is now Viktor (Liberto Rabal), a young stud prowling Madrid. One night, he's out to make a date with the sexy young junkie he screwed in a disco toilet the week before. She doesn't want to see him, a scuffle ensues, the police are called and Viktor winds up shooting one of the cops and going to jail for seven years.
The outline of what happens when he gets out sounds like a vintage Almodsvar tangle of passions and jealousies. Viktor is enough of a macho fool to still be upset at the sexual rebuff that landed him in the clink, so he sets out to find the woman who spurned him and prove himself a great lover. But she, Elena (Francesca Neri), is now married to David (Javier Bardem), the cop whom Viktor shot, now a star of Spanish wheelchair basketball. And Clara (Angela Molina), the older woman Viktor enlists to teach him the secrets of lovemaking, is the wife of Sancho (Pepe Sancho), David's ex-partner -- the drunken, violently jealous cop whose swaggering style got David shot in the first place.
What characterized Almodsvar films like "Law of Desire" and "Matador" was that their looniest moments were also their most heartfelt. In the pivotal scene of "Law of Desire," Carmen Maura, playing a transsexual actress, explains to her brother how, as a teenage boy, she had an affair with their father, became a woman to make the father happy after the two ran away together and was devastated when he finally left her. On the surface, it's an absurdist take on the moments of revelation in the kind of melodramatic soaps that Douglas Sirk made in the '50s. But on a deeper level, it has the desperate, naked heartbreak of an aria sung by Maria Callas or a scene by Anna Magnani: Maura's invincible strength comes from her willingness to lay herself open.
The moments of revelation in "Live Flesh" have no corresponding comedy or fervor. It's not meant to be funny when we find out that Elena has turned her life around by devoting it to charity work with orphans. And the scene where we see that something more than guilt keeps her with David (he pulls her into the tub with him and hoists her up by the buttocks to give her head) is too restrained to be raunchy. The scene should be a joke on all those movies with sensitive, handicapped lovers (like "Coming Home"); David is so virile even paralysis doesn't slow him down. Instead, it feels like an explicit public-service announcement: "See, even the disabled can lead a satisfying, fulfilling sex life." There are some fairly amusing visuals when Viktor and Elena finally fall into bed, but they lack the freshness and naughty impudence that Almodsvar once got so effortlessly.
The echoes of those past movies keep coming up because Almodsvar is trying badly to replace Antonio Banderas and Carmen Maura. In his Almodsvar roles, Banderas was endearing and dangerous; he had the look of a puppy who'd tear you to pieces if he wasn't cuddled on demand. Rabal, with his shaved head and fighter's cut over his left eyebrow, is a good-looking, hot-headed blank. He's barely live flesh. The Maura role is filled by Molina (who was one of the two women in Buquel's "That Obscure Object of Desire," a title that sounds as if it should be one of Almodsvar's), who gives the movie's best performance. Tougher than Maura, she exudes the sexy warmth of an earth mother in heels and gets the movie closer to a state of passion than anything else in it.
"Live Flesh" isn't terrible. It's accomplished and watchable (though even at 95 minutes it feels draggy). Almodsvar has lost the need to shock that seemed the only motivating force in pictures like "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!" and "Kika." But he's lost his emotional center as well. This is a movie that would have fared better under the direction of a filmmaker with far less style. You can imagine the bones of its plot serving one of the competent studio craftsmen of the '40s, like Henry Hathaway or Tay Garnett. Reviews praising "Live Flesh" as a return to outrageous form make sense to me as the wishful thinking of fans. (Who wouldn't wish for Almodsvar to return to form?)
What I don't get are the reviews hailing this -- and his last picture, "The Flower of My Secret" -- as the advent of a new, "mature" period. I walked out of "Flower" halfway through because it was exactly the sort of women's weeper (before you dash off that e-mail, that phrase was used in the '40s and '50s to describe the likes of "Imitation of Life" or "Stella Dallas") Almodsvar once parodied, minus the comedy or sexiness. It was for everyone who wanted to see him make a Ross Hunter movie. I can only conclude that the people who think "Flower" and "Live Flesh" represent the new, mature Almodsvar think that his earlier pictures were immature. But their gorgeous chaotic excess was wicked and full-hearted and very close to the disreputable core of what movies are all about in the first place. They're immature, or nothing more than camp, only if you think that excitement is a sign of shallowness, only if you're embarrassed to admit that you take movies seriously.