MGM // 1997 // 101 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Nicholas Sylvain (Retired) // May 7th, 2001
Life, love, desire...and everything in between.
A well-polished and beautifully photographed soap opera, Live Flesh is an ultimately unsatisfying mishmash of unbelievable situations and incomprehensible characters. MGM gives us a decent technical presentation but an otherwise bare-bones disc.
Lovestruck pizza delivery boy Victor Plaza (Liberto Rabal) is so obsessed with high-class junkie Elena (Francesca Neri) that he sneaks into her apartment and won't take no for an answer when she demands he leave. When two police detectives, David (Javier Bardem) and Sancho (José Sancho) arrive, a tense standoff erupts in gunfire, leaving David paralyzed from the waist down and Victor serving time in prison.
Determined to take his revenge upon his release from prison, Victor is shocked at what he finds. Elena, cleaned up and running a shelter for abused children, has married David, who has a new career as a wheelchair-bound basketball athlete. Still obsessed with Elena, Victor pursues her with a determined passion, causing great strain on Elena's marriage and driving David to action. Complicating matters is the emerging truth about David's former partner, Sancho, his abuse of alcohol and his wife, Clara (ángela Molina), and why David was shot. When all of these matters come together, the end result is tragic and quite bittersweet.
Accomplished Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar has developed quite a following on the strength of films such as Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!. In the various accounts of his often controversial career, beginning in the counter-culture movement in 1970s Madrid, Live Flesh is not accorded much of a place, for good reason.
After a flash of humor in the opening scene, Live Flesh is set up as a revenge thriller, where an obsessed, self-identified wronged man sets himself on a collision course with the source of his obsession and the men who "ruined" his life. However, to complete this setup, the script has Victor reach new heights in stupid unbelievability. An inexperienced pizza delivery boy is so enamored of a woman with whom he had brief, anonymous sex in a public restroom that not only does he not take a blunt no for an answer, but he essentially breaks into her apartment, persists in his unwanted love suit, and when (surprise surprise) the police arrive, he sees fit to hold his involuntary conquest at gunpoint, threatening her and the police?
This is just the tip of the iceberg of incomprehensibility, to the point where my exclamation, "(s/he) did WHAT?" was a well-worn refrain by the end of Live Flesh. Films quite often can be picked apart for convenient coincidences or characters with bizarre behavior, but Live Flesh just went so obviously over the top in this regard that for me it destroyed a normal suspension of disbelief and pulled me right out of the story. What the core of Live Flesh seems to represent is simply a soap opera, though with far greater production values and cinematic scope than your usual small screen suds-fest. Pick one at random, and see if the story outline of Live Flesh wouldn't fit in with hardly an edit!
American audiences are likely to be unfamiliar with the cast of Live Flesh, though you may have seen Javier Bardem for his Oscar nominated turn in Before Night Falls, or Francesca Neri in Hannibal. Now Penélope Cruz (All About My Mother, Woman on Top, Blow) is a much more familiar face, though she is in Live Flesh for only a very few minutes. I don't think Liberto Rabal has the range to express the scope and depth of David's emotions, but otherwise I found the acting to be good, if unspectacular. Certainly amidst the bizarre twists of the story, any notable acting tends to get lost in the chaos.
The anamorphic transfer does substantial justice to the beautiful cinematography of Live Flesh. A picture that is not quite sharp, not quite soft, but overall decent and with only brief exception free of distracting blips and flecks. A touch of edge enhancement is apparent, but the colors are well saturated and blacks are solid.
The audio track is on par for such a character-centered, dialogue heavy film. Occasional stretches of music (such as in the opening scene) use all six speakers to create an immersive sound field, putting the listener dead center amidst the array of musicians. This was an unexpected treat! Aside from the music and clearly understood dialogue, there is little else for your speakers to do, as you might expect.
Aside from a handful of exceptions, MGM has become notorious for bare-bones discs. While at least Live Flesh is anamorphically enhanced, it still has no extra content aside from the ubiquitous theatrical trailer, not even a brief collection of production notes on a color insert. Were this a mainstream Hollywood movie, this would be less of a crime, but when the disc concerns a little known, niche film from a Spanish director, some context becomes increasingly useful to a full understanding.
It's not the best of times, it's not the worst of times, but Live Flesh is primarily of interest to those already familiar with Pedro Almodóvar's other creations. If you start with Live Flesh, you probably will wonder what all the critical fuss is about. A qualified recommendation to rent for Almodóvar fans, but Live Flesh is unlikely rental fare for the rest of you. If you like it, at least the price ($20 retail) is reasonable.
Though Live Flesh is guilty of being one of Pedro Almodóvar's less interesting creations, the court feels that MGM's continued disrespect for the DVD format is a far worse offense.
Review content copyright © 2001 Nicholas Sylvain; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Theatrical Trailer