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Salt Lake City Weekly Live Flesh

A fatalistic look at being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

By Mary Dickson

APRIL 13, 1998:  As Spanish director Pedro Almodovar's newest film opens, a screaming young woman on a bus in Madrid squeezes her legs together, trying to keep her baby from entering the world before she reaches a hospital.

The baby's timing couldn't be worse. The streets are deserted. The bus is off-duty. It's a prelude to the boy's life. From the moment of his birth, Victor Plaza is destined to show up at the wrong time.

Almodovar's stylish and sensual film, less off-beat than his past works, is an interesting look at chance and destiny. With Live Flesh, the Spanish cult director delves deeply into the characters. Based on the book by Ruth Rendell, Live Flesh spans several years in the life of Victor Plaza, played by Liberto Rabal from Jamon, Jamon. In 1990, the randy young adolescent meets a woman in a bar, has his first sexual encounter with her in the club's bathroom, and can't get her off his mind.

Elena (Francesca Neri) is the spoiled daughter of an Italian diplomat who's into drugs and doesn't even remember who Victor is when he calls. She's annoyed because she was expecting her drug dealer. She has no patience for the smitten young Victor. What he remembered as an incredible night of passion she laughs off as a total bust. Eager to send him on his way, she grabs a gun, which he wrestles from her. When it accidentally goes off, a neighbor calls the police. Almodovar cleverly plays this scene out as Luis Bunuel's Rehearsal For a Murder plays on Elena's television set in the background.

Meanwhile, plainsclothes policemen David (Javier Bardem) and Sancho (Pepe Sancho), are cruising their inner city in an unmarked car. Sancho, who is twice his partner's age, has been drinking and bemoaning the affair he's sure his wife is having. He looks out the window of their cruiser at the people on the streets, and laments that his wife Clara could be sleeping with one of these low-lifes. "Stealing, scheming, betraying, corrupting," he says with disgust. "We're the guardian of a sick flock." When they receive the call about the gunshot, they head to the Italian diplomat's apartment. Three men with guns is the losing combination here. In the confusion that ensues, David is shot. Victor, once again in the wrong place at the wrong time, lands in jail. And so the lives of these characters have intertwined. This chance meeting is just the first of many to come.

Seven years later, an embittered Victor is released from prison on good behavior (he's spent his time studying theology and psychology, reading the Bible, learning Bulgarian, and building his body.) When he goes to the cemetery to visit his mother's grave, Elena is coincidentally attending her father's graveside service at the same cemetery. She is off drugs and married to the paraplegic David, who was crippled on that fateful night.

Victor walks through the receiving line to kiss Elena's cheek, offer his condolences and disappear as nonchalantly as he appeared. As he's leaving the cemetery, he meets Clara, the philandering wife of Sancho who is late to the service. Mistreated by her husband, lonely and desperate, Clara begins an affair with the incredibly alive, handsome and hot-to-trot former convict.

But Victor, intent on revenge for his wasted years in prison, tracks down Elena and gets a job at the nursery where she works. Through chance encounters, Victor not only becomes enmeshed in the lives of these characters but becomes a catalyst for an unfaithful wife searching for tenderness, a volatile policeman trying to salvage his decaying marriage, a former cop who now spends his days in a wheelchair training for the Paralympics, and the diplomat's daughter who married him out of guilt and compassion.

Exuding sexuality and a bit of menace, the brooding Victor initially can think only of retribution for his false imprisonment. His plan? To become the best lover in the world (Clara is his willing teacher), make love to Elena all night long so she can only think of him, break up her marriage, then dump her. He is still haunted by Elena's stinging comments on that night seven years earlier when she called him a lousy lover. Fate, however, has other plans.

Almodovar beautifully builds this story of intersecting lives, skillfully weaving together the seemingly disparate pieces to create a most-unusual love story. In his restrained and solidly-acted tale of intrigue, betrayal, adultery, passion and guilt, Almodovar creates five sympathetic characters. Like David, each is wounded in some way, and like Clara, each is propelled by loneliness. They're all desperate to avoid the void.

"She's all I have. I'll do anything to defend her," David pleads, warning Victor to stay away from Elena.

The abusive Sancho quits drinking and tries to woo Clara back, his threat of "as long as I love you, you're not leaving me" more a pitiful plea.

The fragile Clara, who has fallen in love with her eager pupil, Victor, begs him, "I love you enough for both of us," when he suggests they break off their affair.

The vibrantly alive and sexual Victor helps the women realize how unhappy they really are: Clara trapped by fears of her volatile husband; Elena trapped by pity for her wounded husband and sacrificing herself to duty.

In unwittingly helping them to face these truths, Victor frees not only the other characters but also himself, finding redemption instead of revenge. "Your life didn't belong to you," Sancho once told Victor.

By putting aside his anger and selfish intentions, however, Victor reclaims his life. In one heated encounter with the crippled David, Victor angrily accused him of being "lucky even in the worst circumstances." To which David retorted, "You just always happen to be where you shouldn't be."

Perhaps, Almodovar tells us, Victor has been in the right place all along.


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