Film: Why can't life be a Meg Ryan movie?

Catherine von Ruhland answers that question and asks another: What do the movies suggest we do when destiny calls?

It's an impeccable metaphor for a Spaniard born on the day in 1970 when Franco's government declared the prohibitive State of Exception and the city streets cleared as people shut themselves away under a cloud of fear. As his reward for entering the world on a bus bound for a Madrid hospital, the baby is awarded a lifetime's free public transport.

Fast-forward 20 years, and Victor, the hero of Pedro Almodovar's Live Flesh, is otherwise going nowhere: delivering pizzas for a living, and completely forgotten about by Francesca Neri's beautiful druggie, Elena, to whom he lost his virginity in a nightclub the previous week. So his listless clambering on to a bus no matter where it was headed, is as much a nostalgic craving for order in a luckless, lonely young life.

But when Victor by chance spots Elena at her balcony from the coach window, his spur of the moment leap out onto the street represents the awakening of his instinctive lust for freedom. When he inveigles his way into her plush flat (she assumes she's opening the door to her dealer), a shot is fired, a duo of cops are called, and a twisted Fate decrees that the quartet's fortunes will be forever entwined for better or for worse.

As with Koji Yakusho's stifled salaryman in Shall We Dance?, it is the image of a woman at a window, her promise of colour in a monochrome existence, that provides the courage to step out from the commuter train or the city bus - and the narrow parameters of its pre-determined route - and taste life in all its pain and glory, wherever it might lead.

We see a similar image in a newspaper cutting of the Weeping Madonna of Trevino that draws the terminally ill Las Vegas blackjack dealer, Maria Pitillo, across the seas to Italy in search of a miracle in Something To Believe In. For this mystery girl is the "what if...?", the "just suppose", the embodiment of desire for something wild amid lives that have lost their magic.

Such films have clearly touched a nerve. The uniting of critics and audiences in sheer delight over Shall We Dance? suggests universal emotional resonance with the simple story of a man who just wants to break free - and does, with one small step. Yet the trend for these films, and their positive reception, perhaps indicates that the prevailing Western philosophy that you can choose your own life is often found wanting. When a sinister character in the original Scream declares triumphantly, "Life is a movie", and his terrified girlfriend whimpers, "Then I want to be in a Meg Ryan one", you can't help feeling that she has a point. For each of us experiences moments where we feel trapped by our circumstances, yet we both desire and fear change that anyway appears out of reach.

What is so enchanting about films like Live Flesh and Shall We Dance? is that they suggest that a whole new vista opens up when individuals dare to make some small but vital difference to their lives. Where Gwyneth Paltrow in Sliding Doors is an essentially passive victim of circumstance, and Rachel Weisz's tragic Amy Foster bides her time Rapunzel-like in her cavern of treasures until the sea tosses her a Russian lover to fulfil her dreams, the truth of Live Flesh lies in its political context. Victor's life path is anything but smooth once he has dared to get out of the bus, but he is free from fear. As history repeats itself and his own child craves to be born in the back of a taxi, he whispers to it to be patient, that there is no need to hurry, for the streets are packed with people these days. And life, with all its happiness and sorrow, is in full flood.

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