I first reviewed Live Flesh (1997) when Sony Classics released their Pedro Almodóvar retrospective, Viva Pedro, a couple years back. At that point, I gave it four-and-a-half stars and found it to be lesser, but still essential, Almodóvar. Seeing it again for this screening, I’m ready to give it the full five-star treatment—and wonder exactly why I thought it a lesser work. I can’t really answer that, but I no longer find anything lesser about it. Perhaps it’s simply one of those movies that gets better the more you know it. As for it being essential, I’m not sure there’s such a thing as an inessential Almodóvar picture.
Live Flesh is unusual in that it’s adapted from a novel by Ruth Rendell and is the only film for which Almodóvar has used collaborating writers. It’s probably not in the least surprising that the results still feel like pure Almodóvar, since anything he touches becomes his own. In fact, the biggest difference lies in his depiction of a circle of life to mark the change from the repressive era of Franco’s Spain to the one that made Almodóvar and his films possible in the first place. The story is a kind of neo-noir thriller about a young man who goes to jail over a crime he really didn’t commit over a woman he’s still in love with years later. It’s told in purely Almodóvarian terms, which is to say that it’s full of wry humor, ridiculously melodramatic Spanish pop music, soap-opera twists, visual elegance, fully formed characters and a sense that the world is merely a reflection of—possibly even guided by—the pop culture that surrounds it. For example, Luis Buñuel’s 1955 Rehearsal for a Crime or The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (which, by the way, is next week’s World Cinema offering) playing on a TV in the movie seems to dictate the action of the film. In an Almodóvar movie, that’s only reasonable.