But as the Spanish director has evolved from the young tyro of What Have I Done to Deserve This?, Almodovar has also developed a tolerance -- almost an affection -- for sentimentality. Melodrama and mawkishness emerge in seedling form in 1990's Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and become full blown in '95's The Flower of My Secret. His latest film, Live Flesh, is similarly afflicted.
Like Flower, Live Flesh comes, too, with a problem that's hard to wish away: It lacks both the shiny surfaces that enlivened the director's earlier films, as well as the depth of character that allows us, in a traditional film, to identify, empathize or connect psychologically. It has moments of visual flash and humor -- including a terrific Bunuel allusion -- but not as much as we expect from a filmmaker of this caliber.
The film begins with a tense, anarchic scene of childbirth aboard a moving bus during Christmas time, at the tail-end of Franco's reign. (In a clever scene typical of Almodovar, the latter-day Mary and son become momentary celebrities on the TV news.)
Next we see the boy as a young man, Victor (Liberto Rabal), phoning a rich but shattered young woman with whom he had a fling in a restroom. When Elena (Francesca Neri) refuses to see him, Victor sneaks into her apartment and forces himself on her. Elena pulls out her gun, a bullet fires, two plain-clothes cops show up and after a brief standoff and scuffle we see that one of the cops has been shot. It all moves forward conventionally enough, as if the director were coolly and confidently putting some grand design into motion.
The action flashes forward seven years, where the characters' lives have reassembled themselves. After the shooting, we find out, the saner of the two cops -- David, played with great restraint by Javier Bardem -- has become a celebrity wheelchair basketball player who leads Spain to a Special Olympics victory. David has married Elena, who's cleaned herself up; she projects a warmth both willowy and maternal. Victor has gone to jail, where he's done his best to fly right.
Once released, Victor begins tailing Elena -- first stumbling accidentally into her father's funeral, then volunteering at the children's shelter she helped found. From his dingy apartment, he also begins an affair with a world-weary friend of Elena's named Clara (Angela Molina).
David, though, can't forgive Victor for that scuffle, years ago, that left him paralyzed. No longer does David gaze at heaven and the stars; now his only view is of the gutter: "You condemned me to look down," he tells Victor in a rare moment of directness.
About 50 minutes into Live Flesh, it's still not clear where the movie is headed, and not because it's so surreal and loopy -- this is among the most conventional films Almodovar has made -- but because the characters fail to galvanize and the story fails to focus. The movie winds its way to a violent conclusion without letting us know what motivates these people or their relationships.
Bardem, who had a small role in High Heels and won acclaim as the lead in Boca a Boca, has a granite jaw and a stalwart, earnest presence. He's the closest thing to old-fashioned decency we get in this film, but it's not enough. He rarely electrifies the screen.
We get a sense that the fate of all five central characters -- the two cops, Elena, Clara and Victor -- are joined in a kind of sexual pentagon, that their lives were changed, and linked, for both better and worse, by the night of the shooting. But the conceit isn't exploited imaginatively. Nor, despite a potentially poignant scene about the end of Spanish fascism, does the movie's political context reframe its action in a provocative way.
The film is not without its pleasures. Unfortunately, we've seen a lot of this done better in earlier, better Almodovar films -- the sexy, dangerous male who sneaks into the single woman's apartment, the sudden cross-cutting to hokey television images, the high jinks built around the telephone (the director worked for Spain's telephone company for more than a decade and has long been fascinated with the illusion of proximity the device offers), the pills and guns, the campy score that ironically underlines the film's action. And we've already seen Almodovar do roguish male outlaws and nervy, nervous women, most notably in 1988's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.
What Almodovar's next few films will show us is whether the director has simply spent all of his good ideas or if he's engaged -- as Tarantino may be -- in the awkward transition from a manic, surface-obsessed filmmaking toward something deeper and more empathetic. But with Live Flesh, he's sure not there yet.
-- Scott Timberg
Directed by Pedro Almodovar. With Javier Bardem, Francesca Neri and Liberto Rabal.