Carne tremula is Pedro Almodovar's fourteenth film and an adaptation of Ruth Rendell's novel Live Flesh. It, by Almodovar's own admission, is almost completely changed from its source novel. Live Flesh is a mature drama that avoids camp or shock value and is considered to be deeper and more serious than Almodovar's earlier films.
The film's prologue is set in Madrid, during New Year's Eve of 1970, against the backdrop of Generalissimo Francisco Franco's 1969 suspension of constitutional rights. Although little of what is to follow has an overtly political tone, Almodovar constantly questions the prevailing social order. He has a history of doing this:
Franco was a Fascist dictator who at times restricted the flow of foreign ideas into Spain while torturing and killing political dissenters. As a gay man and a gay journalist, Almodovar was at the forefront of an underground movement that helped shake Spain out of its rigid conservatism following Franco's 1975 death. Live Flesh features a protagonist who, while not what we'd call "pure as the driven snow," has been unjustly imprisoned. His antagonists are policemen. The female lead is the daughter of a diplomat, and at the beginning of the film she is a drug addict who has anonymous sex in nightclub restrooms. It's safe to say that Almodovar is not taking a stand in support of the establishment.
Isabel, played by Penelope Cruz, is a prostitute who goes into labor on New Year's Eve. The only available transportation to the hospital is a bus whose driver is going off duty for the night. In an apparent reference to the Tiananmen Square massacre, Isabel's madam, Doña Centro, throws herself in front of the government-run bus to get the driver to stop and take Isabel on board. Isabel gives birth on the bus, and the baby Victor is hailed as the first child of the New Year. Victor is given a lifetime pass for unlimited use of the city buses and is assured of excellent prospects and a "life on wheels."
Twenty years later, Victor, played by Liberto Rabal, isn't looking too good on the "excellent prospects" front. He smokes crack while gathering the courage to call Elena, played by Francesca Neri, an heiress with whom he'd had an anonymous restroom fling a week earlier. Elena has no memory of this and is impatient for her heroin dealer to arrive, so she hangs up on Victor. Still as headstrong as on the night of his birth, Victor goes to confront Elena and demand an explanation. Neighbors hear the dispute and call the police.
The responding officers are Sancho, an alcoholic with marital problems who is eager to take out his anger on anyone in range, and his more rational partner, David. Victor is leaving, but becomes frightened when they arrive. The situation escalates, and David is shot in the ensuing struggle.
Victor insists that he did not fire the shot, but he goes to prison for the incident. There he sees David, who was paralyzed in the shooting and now lives his own "life on wheels," in a television broadcast of a Paralympic event. Elena, now drug-free and married to David, cheers from the sideline. David is a gold-medalist, a national hero and married to the one-time object of Victor's affection, while Victor watches from behind bars. Worse yet, his mother dies while he is in prison. None of this sits well with him, and he spends his days getting educated and planning for his release.
Victor is set free four years later. Isabel has left behind her house, which is scheduled for destruction in an urban renewal project, and her hard-earned savings. While mourning at her gravesite, Victor chances upon the funeral of Elena's father. This gives him the opportunity to worm his way back into the lives of David and Elena. He strikes up a relationship with a friend of theirs named Clara, and then he volunteers at the children's home that Elena founded.
A Cape Fear scenario? It's a subtle and nonviolent variation on the theme. It's also very convoluted, and Victor acknowledges that it is a "ridiculous" plan. Victor's plot involves seducing Elena and damaging the pair psychologically. Problem number one is that he's been away for a while and knows almost nothing about women, which is where Clara comes in. Clara's presence is a major complication, as she has a secret connection to the shooting. The film's fans may not appreciate this comment, but this is where the movie ventures into soap opera territory. Although it's well plotted and features top-notch acting, the social commentary subtext is all that elevates Live Flesh from becoming a smart soap opera. That's not intended as a put-down, and the plot takes some very interesting twists, although they are omitted here because they're best left as surprises. It's just that, on the surface, this is a voyeuristic look at a set of people whose lives are in shambles.
There's an endearing ADD quality to much of the film. Elena is getting serviced by her husband when she informs David of Victor's reappearance. Of all the times to bring that up... Then later, David and Victor stop brawling to cheer a televised soccer match. That is the lone unifying moment between the authoritarian David and the freedom-loving Victor, who fight constantly and agree about nothing but turn into a pair of happy, overgrown kids when the game's on.
David represents the established social order that tries to oppress Victor's freedom. Victor's "life on wheels" entitles him to roam the city freely, but to David "life on wheels" means restricted movement. David is all about upholding order and tells Victor, "You always happen to be where you shouldn't," even while imposing his authority by barging into Victor's home uninvited. He accuses Victor of spying on Elena, but he thinks nothing of placing Victor under surveillance. There's a mockery implied in this: David may claim to have all authority, but he's paralyzed from the waist down and so can't satisfy his wife. He claims omnipotence, but really he's impotent.
An even darker side to this authoritarianism is hinted at by a letter in which Clara expresses concern about Sancho's anger. This letter alludes to the thousands who disappeared or were killed by Franco's regime through its use of words like "disappear" and its description of Sancho as "born to kill." Sancho is filled with unfocused rage that seeks an outlet. All of the characters are flawed in one way or another, and each confronts their personal demons en route to the film's explosive finish.