Live Flesh (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★
Isabel (Penélope Cruz), a prostitute, is in labor and a friend (Pilar Bardem) opts to help her deliver the baby on the bus while on their way to the hospital. The newborn is named Víctor. Twenty years later, Víctor (Liberto Rabal) calls from a pay phone outside of a drug addict’s apartment. Elena (Francesca Neri) declines to allow him to come up because she cannot remember agreeing to go on a date with him a week prior. Still, Víctor finds a way to get in. A gun is fired and the neighbors call the police.
David (Javier Bardem) and Sancho (José Sancho) are summoned to investigate the call. While Víctor and Sancho wrestle for the gun, David turns away from the scuffle to tell Elena to run downstairs. The gun goes off.
Based on a novel by Ruth Rendel and directed by Pedro Almodóvar, “Carne trémula” is an elegantly constructed story about obsession. Víctor is obsessed with Elena but he is not the kind of creep who sneaks into her house and steals memorabilia for his shrine. He is charming on the outside but holds a darkness within. The kind of things he considers valuable are of his memories with her. Since he can take those memories wherever he goes, images of her face, her body, and her quirks constantly bounce around in his head.
His actions are driven by this obsession. After being released from jail, he decides to volunteer at a children’s center that Elena helped to finance because he knows that sooner or later, she will have to come in and interact with the staff. Since he cannot be with her, given that she has married David during his years of incarceration for shooting a cop, being around her will have to do for the time being.
Sex is never used as a product of, or through an act of, love. Rather, it is used as a means to an end and a catalyst that highlights the broken part of the characters. For example, initially, David and Elena look like a perfect fit. While in prison, Víctor, raging with jealousy, watches them hug and kiss on TV. But when David is shot in the back, the bullet severs his spine and the injury leaves him unable to move his lower limbs. As a result, David and Elena are not able to have a normal sex life.
He gives her oral sex and she is able to experience pleasure, but a woman needs every part of a man–physically, emotionally, psychologically–to be fully fulfilled. Elena is not fulfilled. If David is not able to tell, and a fool he is not, that is because Elena goes on great lengths to hide it. That is when Víctor comes in. The way I saw it, Elena considers him as the reason why she cannot be fully happy with her husband even though she loves him–and he loves her–dearly. At the same time, she sees Víctor as a person who she knows is messed up in the head but is able to give her his all.
Almodóvar is melds disparate emotions and psychology to make intricate patterns about human behavior and desires without coming off as forced or one note. There is an excellent scene when David visits Víctor to warn that he ought to away from Elena. Víctor asks, in a mocking way, what David is going to do if he does not. The husband punches the stalker where it hurts, but instead of exploding into a fight, the two end up cheering together because their fútbol team scores a great point on TV. Even though the two are opposite forces on collision, the scene puts them on common ground.
“Carne trémula,” also known as “Live Flesh,” is in control of its themes. Its assured direction anchors the abrupt changes in our sentiments toward the people on screen as well as the characters’ opinions of one another. The answers are never easy or predictable as our feelings for another person does not reflect that of a straight line.