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Live Flesh.

When Pedro Almodovar titled his second feature film Labyrinth of Passion, he could not have known that he was fixing the agenda for an entire filmmaking career.

The Almodovar signature invariably signals an elaborate network of the desired and the desirous, a maze of ardor that coils back on itself in unexpected ways. His resourceful lovers seem prepared for anything, as if betrayal, revenge, and unlikely sexual encounters were their daily bread. Handguns are always within easy reach -- in the drawer next to the condoms and the diaphragms, we figure -- and they tend to go off in homicidal orgasms.

In the first half hour of Almodovar's luridly named Live Flesh, we cannot begin to guess the extent to which its seemingly disparate characters' lives are enmeshed. Indeed, when a young woman gives birth on a public bus in the glorious opening scene (the bus grinds to a halt under the holy star of a Christmas street decoration, no less), we can only imagine that we are in for some neo-Preston Sturges satire about the chance celebrity of the common man.

We are wrong. But who knows what type of movie Live Flesh is? Even the director, by his own admission, is at a loss. Suffice it to say it's an alluring tangle of hothouse sensuality and dramatic surprise, surely the most satisfying of the divine Senor A's output since Law of Desire.

As it happens, we hardly see that young mother again. Leaping 20 years in time, the narrative shifts to her son, now grown into the sulky and impetuous Victor Plaza (Liberto Rabal, of the full-lipped Antonio Banderas school of feverishly beautiful leading men). Victor is hung up on Elena (the commensurately stunning Francesca Neri), a spoiled crackhead socialite whom he ravished one night in a nightclub toilet. In a reckless attempt to force a second rendezvous at her home, he invites the suspicions of two roving cops, David (the hulking sad-eyed Javier Bardem, Spain's answer to Gerard Depardieu) and Sancho (Jose Sancho). A gun is fired, and Victor goes to prison for shooting and paralyzing David.

Following a four-year sentence in which Victor immerses himself in Bulgarian, the Bible, and body work, he reinitiates his pursuit of Elena, who has forsaken her dissolute past for a martyr's existence. She now devotes herself selflessly to working with a children's shelter and caring for the disabled David, whom she has married. Twisting the screw of Almodovar's interlinking lovers, Victor begins an affair with Clara (a riveting Angela Molina), Sancho's abused and malcontent wife.

Only Almodovar could devise a scenario as overheated and yet as curiously evenhanded at the same time. As a storyteller he's clever to a fault. Taking his cues from Ruth Rendell (whose novel inspired this film) and Luis Bunuel (whose Rehearsal for a Crime is quoted in a pivotal scene), the auteur unravels his five intertwined lives like a striptease, spiking scenes with little fake-outs and MacGuffins that play havoc with our expectations.

For all the bait, this is sober Almodovar. Critics (mostly straight) are already praising him for putting a lid on the camp, as if getting rid of the ballsy women, the boy-loving dentists, and the homo frenzies were somehow a sign of maturity and growth. While gay fans of his earliest films may miss all that over-the-top stuff, Live Flesh is a turn-on of a different stripe. Few directors could bring together such a seductive collection of players for both women and men to revel in, then photograph them with an instinctive line into their sensuality that leaves most films, mainstream or porn, in the dust. And when Liberto Rabal emerges naked and gleaming from the smoke of a flaming frying pan like some Eros of Madrid, the complex labyrinth of passions fades away for one charged moment, leaving us to behold the simple, unalloyed desires of the filmmaker.
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Author:Stuart, Jan
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Feb 3, 1998
Previous Article:In sickness and health.
Next Article:He reigns in Spain: with 'Live Flesh,' Pedro Almodovar makes his best film yet.

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