Ciby 2000/AV Channel .
R4 . COLOR . 97 mins .
MA15+ . PAL
When you rent or buy this disc, you get the added bonus of a bit of a fun experiment in human nature before you’ve even hit “play”. Playing is easy; when a friend asks you what you’re up to that evening, reply that you’re going to watch a DVD called Live Flesh. Observe the reaction. Our little experiment showed that about 90% of respondents will first raise their eyebrows, then look at you with a kind of disappointed-shock-with-a-dash-of-pity expression. “Oh,” they’ll say. “That’s nice. Err, nice weather we’re having, isn’t it?” Then tell them that the disc in question is actually a respected movie by a renowned, Oscar-winning Spanish director. Victory is yours.
C'est évidemment une copie Française.
The other 10% will, of course, already know that Live Flesh is a 1997 film by Pedro Almodovar, and they’ll possibly be rather excited that it’s finally made it to DVD in Australia, providing yet another intelligent antidote to the multi-disc special-edition no-brainer offerings flooding the market.
You can’t blame Almodovar for the title, despite his reputation for taboo-breaking, extreme melodrama and the often unrestrained sexuality in his movies (or in the case of Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, the restrained kind). Live Flesh is, in fact, a novel by veteran British mystery writer Ruth Rendell, and Almodovar’s film is based on the very same book - an unusual move in itself for a filmmaker who, more often than not, writes his own scripts from his own stories. But if you’re a Rendell fan hoping for one of those endless crappy telemovie renditions of one of her novels, you’re in for a big (and hopefully pleasant) surprise. Almodovar, who’s been on peak form for some years now, has turned Live Flesh into a compelling, stylish and sometimes funny motion picture.
Elena (Francesca Neri) in darker days.
Onboard a run-down bus in Madrid, Spain, during the rule of the oppressive Franco regime, a baby is born and promptly given a lifetime bus pass. He is Victor, and when we meet him again it’s two decades later, where he’s played by Liberto Rabal. He has had a very brief sexual encounter with a girl named Elena (Francesca Neri) and calls her to confirm a pre-arranged date. But unfortunately, Elena was frazzled on drugs at the time - in fact, she’s waiting for a delivery of some right then and there, and cancels her date with Victor, rudely saying she’s going out with someone else. Victor is incensed, and after travelling around on a bus for a few hours, he goes past Elena’s apartment - and she’s home. She still doesn’t want to see him, though, and points a gun at him to underline the point. Enter police officers Sancho (Jose Sancho) and David (Javier Bardem), themselves having an argument about Sancho’s wife Clara (Angela Molina). Guns are pointed. Someone is shot. Someone goes to prison. And this brief and violent meeting of these four people has bound their fates to each others’, for better or worse.
Rendell writes mysteries, and while Live Flesh in its Almodovar form isn’t strictly of that genre, the film plays out much more entertainingly when you don’t know too much of the plot (which is why we’re not saying too much about it!) Love, lust, possessiveness, betrayal, pity, naivety, fear and anger all play a part in how these five people’s lives interlock, and it’s fascinating to watch it play out. What makes this film so engrossing, however, is Almodovar’s focus on the thoughts and feelings of the characters, not just on the deeds they do. He gets inside each and every character here to the point where, even with a fairly short running time and a densely layered plot, the audience can get a genuine sense of not only what they’re doing, but why. It’s this essential ingredient that takes Live Flesh out of the realms of cheap sex thriller (which it certainly would have been in less skilled hands), transforming it into a piece of cinema cleverness that tells its story with intelligence and, of course, consummate filmmaking bravado. It’s easily this writer’s favourite Almodovar film, and that’s saying a lot; best of all, though, it will appeal not only to fans of the Almodovar canon but also to a general audience (or at least that small fraction of the general audience who can make the effort to read a few subtitles). Very highly recommended.
"Victor, this film is in Panavision. I can stand right over here."
Live Flesh first popped up on DVD in the UK, where it scored a reasonable but non-anamorphic video transfer. Its US release (from MGM, no less) upped the ante with a 16:9 transfer - but this Australian disc is the first time a 16:9 PAL version has been released in an English-speaking territory. The transfer comes from France, via the film’s co-financiers Ciby 2000, and is as good as you’d hope it to be. Presented in the full theatrical 2.35:1 aspect ratio - the only way to watch this film - and 16:9 enhanced, it’s a magnificent, perfectly-judged transfer that’s nearly flawless. We say “nearly” because there’s the occasional instance of noticeable grain, but to complain about that would be churlish. Film has grain. We cope. Colour is rich and saturated (you expected less from Almodovar?), detail is excellent and the whole thing’s got a very warm, film-like quality to it, free of excessive digital enhancement.
Madman’s authoring team have given the film plenty of room to breathe, using about three quarters of a dual layered disc - not bad at all for a 96 minute film. The encoding bitrate is extremely high - oddly fluctuating up and down between seven and eight Mbit/sec in a regular pattern for the entire length of the movie. Compression problems are nowhere to be found, and the only pointy bit that crops up is the layer change, which is clunkily placed just after the start of a scene. Granted, it’s not the easiest film to split for a layer change, thanks to Almodovar’s fluid editing. But there must be a better way to deal with it.
Subtitles are provided in eye-pleasing SBS Yellow™ and can be turned off if you’re lucky enough to speak Spanish.
And incidentally, being a French-sourced transfer, it’s from the French version of the movie - hence the French title and “Un film de Almodovar” in the opening credits. This is the reason for the note on the back cover about the use of a “French print”.
We’ve reminisced before about the days when you’d watch a foreign film on home video and get a grungy video transfer with blurry subtitles and mono sound. These days, thanks to companies like Madman, we get pristine digital video transfers and now, more frequently, full 5.1 audio as well. That’s the case here, with a Spanish-language Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack allowing you to hear the film the way you would have during the original theatrical run in Spain.
Fidelity is superb throughout on this very front-focused soundtrack; it’s a dialogue-heavy film, so there’s not a great deal in the way of audio pyrotechnics. What Almodovar has done instead is have Alberto Iglesias’ music score recorded in very flamboyant 5.1 surround, effectively putting the audience right in the middle of the orchestra and soloists whenever there’s music playing. It’s disconcerting at first - we’re used to hearing most of the music from the front channels, after all - but it’s undeniably an involving way of immersing the audience in the mood of the film, once they get used to having a violin or a pair of drummers behind their head. The LFE channel is rarely used, but when it is it’s usually as subtle bass support for the music.
"Elena, I said I like your new hairstyle!"
There’s not much here in the extras department - and there hasn’t been on international editions of this film on DVD to date either. The usual carefully-designed jacket picture and DVD Text encoding that we see on all Madman-authored titles is present here.
What you get is a seven-page Almodovar text biography, well written but less detailed than perhaps it could have been. Still, a good overview for those unfamiliar with the man’s work. Then there is a selection of three Almodovar Trailers, all for his more recent films - All About My Mother, Talk to Her and of course Live Flesh itself. All are of fairly dubious quality, but the Talk to Her trailer looks and sounds like it came off an old U-Matic tape that got left on top of a subwoofer for a few weeks.
There’s also the usual Madman Propaganda - in this case, five trailers for other titles from the company. There’s the inevitable Amores Perros trailer (brilliant film, but is someone getting kickbacks for putting this on every second disc Madman has done since the dawn of time?), Samsara, Nine Queens, Dinner Rush and the New Zealand film Rain.
It’s probably the “least Almodovar” of the Almodovar films to date, but as it turns out, that’s a Good Thing. With excesses kept in check and an increasing sensitivity and subtlety, the director who ate Madrid turns in his most accomplished work to date in Live Flesh. Madman’s DVD is a shining example of why the format is a gift to fans of non-mainstream films; the days of scratched, washed-out prints, indistinct subtitles and crackly mono sound have been replaced by crisp digital vision, multichannel audio and text you can turn off if you don’t need it. Which is, of course, the way it always should have been.