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Film: Impotence is always the hardest word

LIVE FLESH Pedro Almodovar (18)
There are sensual films. There are very sensual films. And then there are films by Pedro Almodovar. This Puckish Spaniard, who looks like a clown but makes movies which rummage beneath people's painted-on smiles, has treated sexual tension with dreamy nonchalance (What Have I Done to Deserve This?) and emphatic hysteria (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!). In his new picture Live Flesh, he finds a balance between the two; he cranks up the heat, but keeps the pot from boiling over.

It's not that the film is subtle exactly - it's so full of overt sexual symbolism that you may find yourself grumbling "not now, Pedro, I've got a headache". But Almodovar's persuasive technique helps the viewer to lie back and think of Spain; the artful grace with which he integrates his symbols convinces you that they are part of the movie's very foundations - that if there were one less gun shown in misty close-up, then the picture would simply fall apart. In the days of the Hays Code, when love scenes were obliged to be chaste, film-makers communicated their characters' desires through encrypted images. Now that a cork can never again pop innocently, or a train hurtle into a tunnel without the accompaniment of schoolboy sniggers, it's oddly endearing to see Almodovar trying to find new ways of manipulating an old language.

In his hands, the gun fetish which American cinema has nurtured over the years is boldly challenged. Rather than being a symbol of dominance or closure, the gun comes to expose a man's lack of confidence in his own arsenal. A pizza delivery boy named Victor (Liberto Rabal) shows up at the door of the woman who took his virginity - Elena (Francesca Neri), a junkie with ghost-train make-up and candyfloss hair - but she pulls a gun on him. Was the sex that bad? Actually, yes. Outraged that Elena has not only questioned his virility but also refused the lukewarm pizza that he's brought as a gift (well, it beats bath oils for quirkiness), Victor lunges at her. During their struggle, he lets the gun go off at an inopportune moment, which was what made the sex so disappointing in the first place.

Two passing policemen burst in, though it's not their weapons that make them volatile but their secrets: the older cop, Sancho (Jose Sancho), knows that his wife is cheating on him with some young buck; his partner, David (Javier Bardem), knows too - he's the buck in question. Those fingers poised on their triggers are each loaded with their own backlog of guilt, jealousy and insecurity. When Victor shoots prematurely for the third time in his life, his gun ejaculating in extreme close-up, David is floored. Six years later, with Victor about to be released from prison, and David the star of the Spanish Paralympics, the testosterone tournament moves into its first round.

Men driven to extreme behaviour by sexual inadequacy are familiar fixtures in Almodovar's movies - the hero of his 1986 film Matador was a failed rapist who tempered his humiliation by confessing to a string of brutal murders of which he was innocent. But Live Flesh has a refinement and precision that contrasts sharply with the baroque excess of Matador. You might have put it down to the narrative conventions of the new film's source material - a novel by Ruth Rendell - if Almodovar and his co-writer Ray Loriga hadn't made alterations considerably more drastic than simply lugging the action abroad and ruling out Roy Marsden as the lead.

Broadly, the picture is about the journey from confinement to freedom: the streets of 1970 Madrid featured in the prologue have been emptied by Franco's "State of Exception", but by the final scene, the film has covered 26 years, and the eerie chill has given way to a carnivalesque traffic jam where horns parp rudely as though translating the city's desires into sound. The theme of hard-earned happiness is echoed in the story of Victor, who begins the film with a dodgy trigger finger but by halfway through is doling out orgasms to his lover the way a cardsharp deals a deck. This wouldn't be notable if Almodovar were not so obviously delighted by Victor's eagerness to learn. Cinema doesn't generally countenance lovers who have anything less than olympic-level stamina, and it's certainly unheard of for a hero to gaze adoringly into that part of a woman more intimate than her eyes. But in one of the picture's most glorious scenes, Victor does both, wrapping up foreplay and intercourse in a nifty 30 seconds, and so charmingly that you suspect half a minute with him would be infinitely preferable to an all-nighter with Warren Beatty.

The sexual rivalry between the male leads is very tenderly evoked, and involves some delicate shifts in power. When Victor sees David for the first time since the shooting, it is on the prison TV set: David is screeching around the basketball court, driving his wheelchair like a ram-raider, and then celebrating his victory at an after-game party by manoeuvering his wheels into a nimble disco dance. The traditional portrayal of the disabled has been inverted: whether it's on the basketball court or in the bath, where his wife grips the wall hoists and presents herself to be pleasured, David's freedom is not impeded by his handicap. And when David and Victor meet again, the cop finds that in his wheelchair he's just the right height to administer a crippling blow to his adversary's crotch.

Throughout Live Flesh, Almodovar seizes upon images of male sexuality in its various stages of jeopardy and disrepair, such as the recurring shot of men crowding around a basketball hoop like sperm competing for an egg. This is certainly very generous, but it rather squeezes the women out of the picture. Both Sancho's wife Clara (Angela Molina), and Elena, who smartens herself up and marries David, are the sort of feisty women that we have come to expect from Almodovar, which is just lovely, though it doesn't leave much room for sympathy when the male characters' inadequacies are being indulged. Almodovar's compassion toward each of his creations is touching, but you know the odds are stacked against Clara by the way she wears leopard-print unironically, and digs her stiletto heels into the "Welcome" mat outside her door.

In movies like Double Indemnity and Gilda, a woman's immorality was always measured by the height of her heels, but the use of that symbolism here feels transgressive, and supports the uncomfortable message expounded by the film that women can only be happy if they settle down with an athletic lover and have a baby or two. Let's not forget where all this trouble started - in Elena's apartment, with its sinister bull's eye rug and the walls splashed with a lush, vaginal red which I believe comes from Dulux's Freudian range.