The Depiction of Disability in Almodóvar’s Live Flesh (Part Two)

Click here to read part one:

Part Two: Carne trémula (Live Flesh)

“I have never evoked Franco’s Spain before. I wrote the prologue for narrative and dramatic reasons but, really, there was also ‘something’ I needed to tell. Twenty years ago, I took my revenge on Franco by not acknowledging his existence, as if he never existed. Today I think I can’t forget that period, which is still relatively recent. That’s why there are two births in the film: the first is a city besieged by fear, and the second in a city full of people and happiness, that has forgotten fear. This optimistic ending in a story that has an obvious air of tragedy is like a breath of fresh air. – Pedro Almodóvar on Carne trémula (Live Flesh) (Duncan 2017)

The Shooting

The opening shot of the film is text declaring a state of emergency in Franco Spain and freedoms of speech, residence, and gathering have been suspended.

We next see text that reads, “Madrid, January of 1970.” A young prostitute named Isabel (Penelope Cruz, in her first collaboration with Almodóvar) gives birth on a public bus to a son she names Victor. Mother and son become minor celebrities, Victor is named an honorary citizen by the mayor of Madrid, and both are granted free lifetime bus passes by the transit company. The day Victor is born, Madrid is like an eerie ghost town, and it is pure chance (Almodóvar explores the motif of chance heavily in this film) that Isabel’s madame (Pilar Bardem, real life mother of Javier Bardem), was able to stop the bus when there was no other traffic or activity on the street.

The film jumps twenty years to 1990 and we see Victor (Liberto Rabal) working as a delivery person for Pizza Hut. Victor has fallen for a woman, Elena (Francesca Neri), with whom he had sex with a week ago in the bathroom stall of a nightclub. Elena conveys to him on the telephone that he has confused sex with love (odd since his mother is a prostitute and he will later reflect on how many “tricks she had to turn” to earn the inheritance she leaves him). Elena, who is hooked on drugs (addiction is an often-recurring motif in Almodóvar’s films), wants nothing to do with Victor, and when he shows up at her apartment, she carelessly waves a gun to scare him away. They get in into a scuffle and a shot is fired, and a neighbor calls the police. No one is affected by this gunshot.

The two police officers who respond, David (Javier Bardem) and Sancho (Jose Sancho), are friends and colleagues who are in the middle of their own crisis. Sancho is an abusive drunk and believes that his wife, Clara (Angela Molina, who will later play Cruz’s mother in Almodóvar’s 2009 film, Broken Embraces), is having an affair and suspects David of being her lover. When they arrive at Elena’s building, Sancho wants to storm the apartment while David is more sensible insisting that they follow procedure and call for back up. Sancho, the senior officer, refuses to do this. As Victor is peacefully leaving Elena’s apartment, Sancho storms the door and Victor, in a panic, impulsively picks up the gun and holds Elena hostage.

David tries to calmly defuse the situation and get Victor to drop his gun. Sancho repeatedly exacerbates the situation by threating Victor. David shockingly points his gun towards Sancho’s head and eventually gets Sancho and Victor to put down their guns. Victor lets Elena go free and David instructs her to flee. As Elena passes David, the film goes into slow motion: their eyes meet, and they have an intense moment of mutual attraction. Because David is momentarily distracted by Elena, Sancho lunges for Victor, and as they wrestle for the gun, it fires off.

Prison and Paralympics

The film jumps two years to 1992. Victor is in jail and while in the rec room watches a wheelchair basketball game featuring David who is now paralyzed from the gunshot. David is a star player in the 1992 Paralympics[1] and Elena, who is now his wife, watches, and cheers from the sidelines.

Victor is bitter watching this on television but has made the most of his time in prison, earning a degree via correspondence and exercising body and mind[2]. While Victor is in prison, his mother dies of cancer, but leaves him a house, (in a neighborhood amid what looks like an American style 1950s “slum” clearance program) and a small inheritance.

The film then jumps four years to 1996 and Victor is released from jail. As Victor is walking and relishing in his freedom, he sees a billboard for Champion athletic wear with David soaring in his wheelchair while playing basketball. Victor, under his breath, bitterly says, “Even when you lose, you win.” Two days later Victor visits his mother’s grave. By chance, David and Sancho are there for the funeral of Elena’s father. Victor boldly walks up to Elena and offers his condolences leaving her stunned. Before leaving the cemetery, Victor meets Sancho’s wife Clara (who looks a lot like a 1990’s version of Mrs. Robinson from The Graduate), also by chance, who has arrived late for the funeral. They leave together and she gives him a ride home. Victor and Clara establish a cautious relationship that will later evolve into an affair.  

“Even when you lose, you win.”

Money and Virility

Elena, who comes from a wealthy family, is now off drugs and running an orphanage that houses several children with Down Syndrome. The orphanage is friendly and inviting, but humble. We also see Elena and David in their expansive and expensive apartment equipped with its own basketball court and wheelchair lifts. This stands in stark contrast to the orphanage where we see a scene depicting one of the workers asking for her salary (“I have not been paid in two months”) and her supervisor conveying that they still have not gotten funds from the government. The message here is crystal clear: money makes disability easier.

We next see Elena helping David with a bath. It turns into a sexual encounter, and we see that David is paralyzed from the waist down as he is only able to perform oral sex on Elena. Curiously, just after she climaxes, she chooses that very moment to tell David that Victor was at the cemetery. Was she sexually stimulated by virile Victor?

While David may not be able to sexually perform completely in bed, he is not about to be bested by Victor. After Elena’s revelation, he later barges into Victor’s house and warns him not to go near his wife. Victor challenges him, but David punches him below the belt (in the area where he cannot perform). Before they could get into a real brawl, they momentarily put their differences aside when they both happen to catch and comment on a key moment in a soccer match on television and briefly share a chuckle silently conveying that they could have been friends under different circumstances. David then composes himself and sternly warns Victor to stay away from Elena. Victor then taunts him by dropping to the floor and doing clapping pushups, showing off his sculpted physique.

A visual motif that is seen often in Almodóvar’s films is macro photography, where he focuses the lens very closely on details. For example, in Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios(Women on the Verge), we see the inner workings of a film projector; in Todo sobre mi madre(All About My Mother), there is an EKG machine and macro shots of the paper feed; in Los abrazos rotos (Broken Embraces), we see the leading man using a computer that reads to the blind. In Carne trémula(Live Flesh), we see David, after leaving Victor’s house, go to his car, which is specially equipped to be completely driven with his hands (again, money makes disability easier as he does not have to rely on public transportation), and go through the motions of getting into the car and then dismantling his wheelchair. It is a lot of work and a lot of details and Almodóvar makes certain that the audience knows it. David will later convey how he now must constantly look down to make sure that he does not get any dog feces on wheels. After David goes through the ritual of getting into his car, he sees Clara arriving and watches them from a distance. We later see Clara talking with Victor agreeing to teach him how to make love while concurrently showering him with gifts and affection. David begins to regularly spy on them and secretly photographs their rendezvous (a detail Almodóvar missed here was having David use a telephoto lens—instead his lens looks like a wide angle).

Revelations and Truths

Victor starts to volunteer at the orphanage Elena runs. He applies when she is out of the office and the credentials he earned in prison, qualify him for the position. He works well with the children and the staff appreciate this as well as his many other technical skills, such as basic plumbing. When Elena discovers that he is there, she objects but cannot give a sound argument against Victor working there. David continues to follow Victor (both are deft stalkers) and discovers that he works at the orphanage. He confronts Victor again, and Victor denies responsibility for firing the shot that disabled him. Victor then demonstrates how Sancho made him squeeze the trigger because Sancho knew David was having an affair with Clara (Victor found this out during a rendezvous with Clara).

David later conveys to Elena, while they are smoking marijuana[3], what Victor said, admitting that he was indeed having an affair with Clara. Elena is appalled, but still plans to leave the orphanage to get away from Victor. The following day, Victor tells Elena that his original plan of revenge was to become the world’s greatest lover, make passionate love to Elena, and then abandon her. But he changes his mind because he now loves her too much. After this, Victor breaks up with Clara. Distraught, she nearly sets Victor’s home on fire while cooking a meal. The image is quite powerful: Clara is in hell: no more Victor and she is stuck with the abusive Sancho.

Later, while Victor is working the overnight shift at the orphanage, Elena arrives to remove her belongings from the office and offers Victor a night of passion on the condition he never contact her again. Their night of love making is lengthy and in blunt contrast to the earlier hasty scene with Elena and David in the bathtub. As dawn breaks in Madrid, Elena cries realizing she is in love with Victor.

David returns from a trip in Seville that morning and Elena then tells him about her infidelity. She also conveys that she will remain his wife because he needs her more than Victor does. Bogdan and Taylor note that an accepting relationship is one between a person with a deviant attribute and another person, which is of long duration and characterized by closeness and affection and in which the deviant attribute does not have a stigmatizing, or morally discrediting, character. (Bogdan 1987) Elena’s motives for wanting to stay with David are curious. In fact, I wish the film had explored how they came together. We see that moment of intense attraction the night that David was shot, but I have always wondered how their relationship evolved. Does Elena really love David? Or was she with him out of guilt because what happened was a result of her drug use? Bogdan and Taylor noted that typical people who are in caring relationships with people who are different de-emphasize the negative aspects of the person and stress the positive. Elena seemed to be doing this until she learned the truth about David and Clara.

The Fatal Shots

Even though Elena has conveyed that she will stay with David, he is still hell bent on avenging himself against Victor. Meanwhile, Clara has decided to leave Sancho. He confronts her, but she shoots him with his own gun and escapes. David later arrives and helps Sancho clean his bullet wound before showing him the photographs he had been taking of Victor and Clara. We then cut to Clara writing a passionate farewell letter to Victor. As she is writing it, Sancho and David arrive. As Sancho pounds on the door, she details the play by play in the letter she is writing. She finishes and gets up to meet Sancho at the door and they have one final confrontation at gunpoint and fire at each other. Clara is killed and Sancho is wounded. Sancho unable to live without her, kills himself. Here Almodóvar brilliantly recreates the suicide scene in Hitchcock’s Spellbound[4].

The film jumps several months to the Christmas season and in a voiceover, David reads a letter written to Elena from Miami, where he is spending Christmas with friends: he apologizes for the way everything turned out. At the orphanage, we see Victor working on an elaborate Christmas decoration when he is suddenly interrupted by a pregnant Elena who is going into labor. On the way to the hospital, she and Victor get stuck in a traffic jam. Victor reflects on the circumstances of his own birth 26 years earlier and tells his unborn child that the Spanish people no longer live with fear as they did on the day he was born. The film comes full circle and concurrently celebrates Spain’s journey from the repression of Franco to the open society of today (though lately, in 2021, I have seen that as in the United States and Brazil, extreme conservatism in Spain is trying to make a comeback).

Next month we will conclude with parts three and four.

Works Cited

Antonio, Sánchez Cazorla. 2010. “The Politics of Fear.” In Fear and Progress Ordinary Lives in Franco’s Spain, 1939-1975, by Sánchez Cazorla Antonio, 18-49. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

Bogdan, Robert, and Taylor, Steven. 1987. “Toward a Sociology of Acceptance: The Other Side of the Study of Deviance.” Social Policy 34-39.

Del Cura, Mercedes, and José Martínez-Pérez. 2021. ““Childhood, Disability and Vocational Training in Franco’s Spain during the 1950s and Early 1960s.”.” History of Education Review 50 (2): 241–57.

Duncan, Paul. 2017. The Pedro Almodóvar Archives. Köln: Taschen.

I Wanna Grow Blog. 2018. Cuantas plantas de maría puedo tener legalmente en España. July 5.

Juridicas, Noticias. 2013. Real Decreto Legislativo 1/2013, de 29 de noviembre, por el que se aprueba el Texto Refundido de la Ley General de derechos de las personas con discapacidad y de su inclusión social. November 29.

Malaga, Sociedad Federada Personas de. n.d. Nuestra Historia.

Martínez-Pérez, José. 2017. “Work, Disability and Social Control: Occupational Medicine and Political Intervention in Franco’s Spain (1938-1965).” “Work, Disability and Social Control: Occupational Medicine and Political Intervention in Franco’s Spain (1938-1965).” 28 (4): 805-24.

McMahon, Christopher. 2006. “Fecundity and Almodóvar? Sexual Ethics and the Specter of Catholicism Catholicism.” Journal of Religion & Film 10 (2).

Newtral. 2019. Esto con Franco no pasaba: bulos sobre la dictadura. November 20.

Orgánica, Confederación Española de Personas con Discapacidad Física y. 2019. Confederación Española de Personas con Discapacidad Física y Orgánica. June 12.

Reverte, Jorge M. 2010. “La Lista De Franco Para El Holocausto.” El País, June 20.

Seguin, Christopher Blow & Denis. 2019. The Dictator’s Playbook: Francisco Franco. Directed by Mark Stevenson. Produced by David, Kate Harrison, Michael Rosenfeld, and Matt Boo Brady.

Sotinel, Thomas. 2010. Masters of Cinema: Pedro Almodóvar. Paris: Phaidon Press.

UNESCO, Fundación Mutua de Propietarios. 2018. La accesibilidad de las viviendas en España. Madrid: Fundación Mutua de Propietarios / UNESCO.

United Nations. 2019. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. New York: United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

[1] Disabled sports in Spain have a long history. In 1917 there were sporting events for the deaf. However, because of the unrest in Spanish society during the 1930’s due to the civil war and Franco’s subsequent terror, matters regarding disabled sports were quiet until the 1950s when the Spanish Red Cross organized disabled sports opportunities in the country, that included the first Olimpiadas de la Esperanza (Olympics of Hope) held in Tarragona. Spain competed at its first Paralympic Games in 1968. ONCE (Organización Nacional de Ciegos Españoles), in 1986, became the official organization for organizing Spanish representation in international blind sporting competitions. (Malaga n.d.) Here, I considered readings regarding adjustment talk and couldn’t quite get it to jibe because the Spanish language is more straightforward and not as nuanced as English in that the Spanish language has far fewer homonyms than English.

[2] Based on Almodóvar’s depictions of prison, the Spanish penal system appears to embrace humane rehabilitation: one scene in Hable con ella (Talk to Her), a guard notes that they don’t use the word inmate but instead use the word intern.

[3] In Spain, the sale and importation of any quantity of cannabis is a criminal offence, punishable by jail time. The purchase, possession, and consumption of cannabis in a public place constitutes a misdemeanor punishable by a fine and confiscation. Consumption and cultivation by adults in a private space is legal, the latter due to a legal vacuum and provided that it is shown to be for one’s own consumption. (I Wanna Grow Blog 2018)

[4] Almodóvar had previously used musical cues from Psycho and Vertigo in Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del montón and used other Hitchcock motifs in his film as well as professing in interviews his admiration for Hitchcock.

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s