Friday, 12 August 2011

Machos in Madrid: Carne trémula / Live Flesh (Pedro Almodóvar, 1997)

Javier Bardem and José Sancho

       Paul Julian Smith states that, along with Almodóvar’s previous film (The Flower of My Secret (1995)), Live Flesh signals the start of a more mature phase of the director’s career (2003: 150), although it maintains several of his predominant interests, including the subversion of gender stereotypes (Smith 1998: 8). Live Flesh is effectively a treatise on machismo and the damage that it inflicts on both men and women, articulated through the generic guise of a thriller. It was the first of Almodóvar’s films to focus exclusively on masculinity and its incarnations (although women are the cause of much that goes on in the film), and Rikki Morgan-Tamosunas argues that this focus on male characters ‘exposes some of the contradictions inherent in traditional notions of masculinity’ (2002: 190). 
     Steve Marsh posits that the film is also the first of Almodóvar’s films to use men as something more than ciphers and that not only are they imbued with history, but they are also constructed by it (2004: 54): ‘While this is indisputably Almodóvar’s male movie, its exploration of heterosexual masculinity is intimately linked to the political configurations of the time and space of the city of Madrid’ (58). Almodóvar is part of Madrid’s cultural heritage, having been a major figure in la movida in the 1980s, and all of his films (including Live Flesh) had been set in Madrid. However, Almodóvar had always been a chronicler of the here and now, refusing to focus on the past, and his films were famous for avoiding direct references to Franco or the dictatorship; what marks out Live Flesh is that it is the last of his films (to date) to be set exclusively in Madrid (his next film, All About My Mother (1999), was his first to be set outside of Madrid (it mainly takes place in Barcelona) and his subsequent films have been made in a variety of locations), and the first in which Spain’s past reverberates through the narrative. History, masculinity, the city of Madrid, and Spain itself, become encapsulated in the lives of the three male characters (Sancho (José Sancho), David (Javier Bardem), and Víctor (Liberto Rabal)). 

     The film has a concern with generational differences in masculinity, but this operates within a wider matrix of generational systems taking place within the film (Marsh 2004: 66). At the most obvious level there is the contrast between the birth of Víctor on the deserted streets of Madrid in 1970 (when the city was under curfew) and the imminent birth of his son in 1996 when the streets are packed with people. However there are also a series of intertextual references to the past and present of Spanish cinema: for example, Buñuel’s Ensayo de un crimen / Rehearsal of a Crime (1955, a.k.a. La vida criminal de Archibaldo de la Cruz) appears on the television in the 1990 segment; both Ángela Molina (who plays Clara, the woman who connects all three men) and Liberto Rabal have a Buñuel connection (the latter via his grandfather, Paco); and the names Bardem and Rabal conjure up past generations of actors (especially since Pilar Bardem is in the 1970 segment and Paco Rabal had previously worked with Almodóvar on Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990)).
     The film starts with a prologue in January 1970 before jumping to 1990, it next briefly stops in 1992 and then jumps again to 1996, where the main part of the narrative takes place. The narrative is rooted in Madrid, as the film critic for El País pointed out ‘el filme representa nada menos que la mutación histórica, a lo largo de casi tres décadas, de la vida de una ciudad, Madrid’ [‘the film represents nothing less than the historical mutation, at the length of almost three decades, of the life of a city, Madrid’ –my translation] (Fernández-Santos 1997), and as evidenced by the insert shots of famous monuments and landmarks (detailed by Marsh (2004) and Ugarte (2001)) during the sequences set in the past, and the use of the KIO Towers and the housing estate of La Ventilla as a backdrop to key parts of the main narrative in 1996. J.R. Resina writes of Madrid’s prominence within the Spanish State that ‘[i]f the myth states that Madrid has the highest “national” significance, then a critique of the “nation” as the myth conceives it becomes possible through a critical reading of Madrid’ (2001: 69). In focussing on the lives of a series of madrileños, Almodóvar uses his home city to offer a broader critique of Spanish masculinities. Javier Bardem (and his star image) is also inextricably linked with Madrid (Perriam 2003: 95-96; Angulo Barturen 2007: 63) both in terms of it being his home city and it being the locale from which images (circulating in the tabloid and popular press) of his real life originate; he is part of this exposé of (specifically madrileño) Spanish masculinities, through the manner in which he and his star image are used in the construction of David. Live Flesh is therefore an example of a director consciously utilising a star’s prior interactions or associations with the national to add another layer to the narrative (in the manner of the strategies employed by Hollywood to exploit stars for the production and consumption of films (McDonald 2000: 1)). 
     Live Flesh charts a shift in Spanish masculinities via the three male characters, with each of them representing a different incarnation of Spanish masculinity and tied to a different time (dictatorship, Transition, democracy). Although Steve Marsh suggests Víctor ‘is in-between David and Sancho and forms a kind of a bridge’ (2004: 60), arguably Bardem’s star image makes David the more appropriate bridge between generations. Marsh argues that the two policemen are differentiated by what they consume (2004: 58), and viewed from that perspective one can see Spanish masculinity moving from anger to calmness (via their choice of artificial stimulant –whisky versus hashish) and by extension it is significant that Víctor abstains from artificial stimulants of any kind (he stresses several times, to both his mother and Clara, that he avoided drugs whilst in prison). But it is their relationships with the women in the film that most clearly delineates their differences and the progression that film charts towards new Spanish masculinities, or to put it more crudely: Sancho is ‘Old Spain’, David represents the Transition (it is surely significant that his surname is ‘de Paz’), and Víctor is ‘New Spain’. 
     Aside from Bardem being older than Rabal, what makes him appropriate for the role bridging the transition from old to new is precisely the aspect of his image that he had tried to escape from: his association with the macho ibérico (stemming from the Bigas Luna films he made at the start of his career, Jamón jamón (1992) and Huevos de oro / Goldenballs (1993), and which he had sent up in Boca a boca / Mouth to Mouth (Manuel Gómez Pereira, 1995)). Live Flesh’s exploration of shifts in Spanish masculinities is not explicit in the script, rather it is implicit in its characterisation, use of location, and casting; arguably the associations (i.e. the macho, his status as a representative of Spanish masculinity, and the Madrid connections) evoked by Bardem’s presence are as important as his actual performance. Sancho embodies the macho ibérico type perfectly with his beating of his wife (Clara) and his chauvinistic view that she is his possession. The complexity of David’s character further nuances Bardem’s associations with Spanish masculinity as he is not a straightforward ‘new man’ and the echoes of the macho are to be found in the darker elements of his personality: for example, that he had an affair with Clara, which sets the whole narrative in motion, and takes to spying on Víctor (handing the photographs revealing the younger man’s affair with Clara to Sancho) means that it is difficult to categorise him as a ‘good guy’. 
     David tries to move beyond the macho views held by Sancho but, while he would never physically harm his wife (Elena, played by Francesca Neri), he finds that he is similarly possessive when another man (Víctor) moves in on her affections. The difference is that David attempts to get rid of Víctor rather than Elena, and ultimately moves on and allows his wife to start a new life; Bardem’s role in Live Flesh therefore shows that it is possible to reconfigure the Spanish male for the new Spanish society, although this transformation occurs off camera and we do not actually see David make the decision to move on, or his actual departure. Víctor differs from the two older men by never setting in motion his plan of revenge (he had planned to avenge himself against Elena, who he held responsible for the events of 1990, but finds himself unable to go through with it because he loves her). At the end of the film, ‘Old Spain’ has had to be killed (at the hands of his battered wife, no less) so that the lives of the others can move forward, while the figure representing the Transition is left crippled (significantly his injuries are inflicted by the macho ‘Old Spain’ rather than the supposed threat represented by the changes of ‘New Spain’), and ‘New Spain’ is alive and well and about to become a father (this re-generation assuring the future of ‘New Spain’).

[This is a (quite heavily) edited extract from my PhD thesis. It comes from a chapter that focuses on Javier Bardem (his career, stardom, and how his star image reflects and projects ‘the national’), hence his being at the centre of my analysis of the film, although I have cut out some of the more extensive discussions of his star image (including how Bardem’s associations with physicality inform the film’s portrait of disability) and some of the theoretical ‘stuff’ because I wanted the post to be more about the film (and because it wouldn’t necessarily make much sense without what comes before and after in the thesis).]

Angulo Barturen, J. (2007) –El Poderoso Influjo de “Jamón, Jamón”, Madrid: El Tercer Nombre, S.A.  
Fernández-Santos, Á. (1997) –‘Carne viva’, El País, 12th October. 
Marsh, S. (2004) – ‘Masculinity, Monuments and Movement: Gender and the City of Madrid in Pedro Almodóvar’s Carne trémula (1997)’, in Gender and Spanish Cinema, edited by S. Marsh and P. Nair, Oxford & New York: Berg.
McDonald, P. (2000) – The Star System: Hollywood’s Production of Popular Identities, London: Wallflower Press.
Morgan-Tamosunas, R. (2002) – ‘Narrative, Desire and Critical Discourse in Pedro Almodóvar’s Carne trémula (1997)’, Journal of Iberian and Latin American Studies, 8:2, pp.185-199. 
Perriam, C. (2003) – Stars and Masculinities in Spanish Cinema: From Banderas to Bardem, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Resina, J.R. (2001) –‘Madrid’s Palimpsest: Reading the Capital against the Grain’, in Iberian Cities, edited by J.R. Resina, New York & London: Routledge.
Smith, P.J. (1998) – ‘Absolute Precision’, Sight & Sound, April, pp.6-9.
    (2003) - Contemporary Spanish Culture: TV, Fashion, Art and Film, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Ugarte, M. (2001) –‘Madrid: From “Años de Hambre” to Years of Desire’, in Iberian Cities, edited by J.R. Resina, New York & London: Routledge.