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Pizza delivery man Victor is having an argument with Elena, whom he met a few days ago, but she was high then and doesn't want to hear about him. Reacting to the noise, two cops, young David and older Sancho, arrive at the scene, the gun accidentally goes off.. Four years later David is a wheelchair basketball star, he's married to Elena, Victor is released out of prison and their destinies begin to cross again. Written by
Spain, more than most nations, has to deal with its ghosts. The Franco years were a time of enforced stasis, a period when no creativity was allowed to thrive, and progress of any kind was suppressed ruthlessly. A false mentality was imposed on the nation, a communal fantasy looking back in time to a supposedly innocent 'golden age'. Spaniards were forced to see themselves and their culture in terms of Carmens and castanets, fans and fandangos. A people was frozen in time for forty years, and fed on a diet of synthetic movies and novels which summoned up a sexless, crime-free rural idyll, Franco's concept of nationhood. While the West had the Rolling Stones, Spain had troubadors in sombreros. The galloping modernity which has transformed Spanish society in a single generation has given the young adults of today an interesting 'window' on history. While the West has moved smoothly from Sinatra to Sid Vicious, from Marilyn Munroe to Marilyn Manson, Spain has a deep chasm between today and yesterday. Almodovar is intensely concerned with this gap, and his films serve two functions in respect of it. They analyse the social forces which created it (and were spawned by it), and they help Spain to bridge the barranco. It is time now for Spain to move on. When Elena meets Victor for one final date, the purpose of the sexual coupling is to wipe out the guilt which clings to their shared past.
New and Old clash on every street corner. We hear a soundtrack of anodyne 'traditional' songs overlaid on scenes of black immigrants doing drug deals. Sancho is a model of old-fashioned manhood who tries, but fails, to castrate the New Man, Victor. The house left to Victor by his mother is out in the northern satellits township of Ventilla, a working-class ghetto of high-rise tenements, Franco's already-rotting 'solution' to Spain's social problems.
Cinematically, "Carne Tremula" is second only to "Todo Sobre Mi Madre" as an example of Almodovar's assured command of the film-maker's craft. Transitions are especially well-done. A bus door opens and we see, through the cab, Victor standing, waiting to board. This is the portal of movement opening for Victor, the boy with the gift of lifetime freedom of the buses (symbolically, the 'new' Spaniard, born to a life of movement). Clara remembers her first sexual intercourse, and looks at a photo of herself in First Communion dress. Both events were first communions, both were rites of passage, abandoning the childhood phase. Almodovar moves the action forward from 1980's Madrid to Barcelona in the Olympic Year (1992) by showing the olympic logo on the cycle track, viewed from overhead, as the cyclists cross it. To end Victor's prison sequence, a bus (always his symbol) passes right to left, 'wiping' the prison and revealing the free man. Sancho the housebound husband is re-introduced with power and economy when Clara crosses her own 'welcome' mat to be greeted by him. Fire, earth, ice and water are used as 'gates' in the narrative, marking new beginnings (for example, Clara's frying-pan catches fire because Victor distracts her by announcing the end of the affair). Isabel's waters break on the bus, and we see men in water at moments of 're-birth' (David in the bath, newly secure in the permanence of Elena's love).
Stalking is a strong theme, Almodovar inverting and perverting the idea of sexual arousal and pursuit. Voyeurism can be innocent and healthy (young Victor watching Elena in her apartment) but becomes sick when the watcher is impotent and jealous (David filming the Victor-Clara couplings). Victor pursues Elena, even wearing a wolf's head in order to close in on her.
Clara is the woman with no sense of direction, whose emotional life is arid. She depends on but does not love the useless Sancho. She loves but cannot possess the sexually potent Victor. The mutual gunning-down of Clara and Sancho is pre-ordained, both in the earlier attempt, and in the shooting by which Sancho launched the narrative.
Elena, like many young bourgeois adults, had a heroin phase in her teen years, but has put that behind her and leads a useful and caring life. However, character is fate. She cannot escape the consequences of her sexual union with Victor. The 'final date' is the powerful climax of the film, the fatal destiny to which all of these characters are tending. It speaks volumes of Almodovar's talent that his highly-improbable last reel, with all of the central characters converging on one spot, is entirely believable.
In a film predicated on contradictions, David is contradiction personified. The sporting champion with no life in his penis, the good man who cuckolded his friend and partner, the hero of the stand-off in the apartment who becomes the raging jealous spectator on the sidelines, David is both admirable and despicable. His obsession with basketball is psychologically neat - a sublimation of his damaged machismo - and also a devastating revelation. The wheelchairs swoop around the court in a Busby Berkley parody of athleticism, and the ball pops into the basket in clever mimicry of the coitus for which this is David's substitute.
And Victor? He is the picaro, the innocent who is always on the move, never comprehending the forces acting upon him, yet never defeated by those forces. His 'life on wheels' is the true life, in contrast with David's sterile life-in-death on wheels. Victor, alone of all the characters, grows because of his suffering. Franco's Spain was static, but Victor has broken free of that prison, and is dynamic. He moves. Thus is he the true victor.
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