What is Darren Aronofsky’s latest fever dream all about? How is it allegorical? What does it mean? How good is Jennifer Lawrence? Why we both loved it. Is the audience reaction fair and what might that mean?
The image for the poster of Live Flesh may be understood not only as that which ‘represents’ or sells the film, but also as one that condenses a whole series of meanings and feelings, complex ones, that the film deals with and is about. At its most obvious, it’s a sexual image of two bums next to each other and with a hand on each. But it’s an image in which it’s difficult to distinguish gender. Is it two men, two women, a man and woman? You can’t really be sure until you see the film. But why does the film valorize, prize, image and posterize that representation of gender?
Once you’ve seen the film, you might ask why this man and why this woman? There are three male protagonists in the film: Sancho (José Sancho), David (Javier Bardem), and Victor (Liberto Rabal). Sancho, with his patriarchal need to control, to dictate, constantly associated with a traditional masculinity visualized for us in the film by the cazuelas he’s cooking with, the morzilla and chorizo pictured in the background. He’s a cop too smart or too weak to kill a man directly; a cop who regularly commits crimes at home; a man wearing an apron; a man who belongs with the sour nuns that greeted Victor’s birth (see second-last image) and for whom there’s no room for in the Democratic Spain that Victor’s son is born into and which the film celebrates.
David, rendered impotent partly because he couldn’t stop himself from acting on his desires, couldn’t stop himself from fucking his partner’s wife or start to think about the consequences of his actions and ends up in a wheelchair as a result. He’s now got a wife who’s with him because of guilt, because, as the slow-mo scene of their meeting tells us, he’s an homme fatal she couldn’t resist, both of them imprisoned by an event they were responsible for but for which only an innocent was sent to a physical, material, jail for. The film beautifully images this imprisoning for us at the moment that it happens (see image below) . Even in his wheelchair, David is a model of masculinity, a Paralympian champion; is, as his T-shirt tells us, a 100% animal (see image above); one constantly shown as imprisoned by this fact; constantly shown through bars, meshes, grids.
Victor is the hero of Live Flesh. We know this because he is the only one who’s linked to all the main characters. His mother, played by Penelope Cruz, also symbolizes an era. The film hints that she’s had to leave her village, cast out? Escaped? And arrives already pregnant to Madrid where she has few options; she can’t have many if she’s still selling her body way into her pregnancy. She’s a victim of the sexual morays and rigid gender roles of the old Spain and she’s already dead as the film’s main narrative gets underway, though as we can see through the character of Clara (Angela Molina), those morays and roles persist.
It’s why we’re shown Clara with her peineta and full flamenco regalia (see image above), and why we’re introduced to her through an ornate iron-worked balcony window with her black eyes. There’s no way out for people who try to live out the old rules in the new Spain. It’s why we see that potent image of the two hands, hers and Sancho’s entwined, their wedding bands prominently displayed, but hands and bands smeared in the blood that is the result of the rigidity and violence of their union (see image below).
David is a little different from Sancho but not much. The outline of their shadows pointing a gun as they go up the stairs to Elena’s apartment, the moment which erupts in violence and which sparks the narrative, is initially indistinguishable, as if it’s the shadow of one person rather than two . The camera quickly separates them (see image below) but the shadow of that gun haunts them both. Sancho’s will be the guiding hand that will deprive David of his legs and Victor of his liberty albeit not achieving his initial intent which was murder. David will later try to get Sancho to kill Victor, also not successful but equally damaging as it will result in the death of Sancho and Clara. There is no room in this new Spain for men such as David and he too is cast out, to Miami, just as was Benito, the character Bardem played in Bigas Luna’s Huevos de oro.
The image that signifies the film is half composed of a young man who’s born into a new Spain with a bus pass for life but not much in the way of economic security, but one with a capacity to learn, to grow, to forgive and to love. It’s telling and touching that his idea of revenge is to become the best lover in the world and please the object of his revenge to such an extent that she’ll be destroyed by that loss of pleasure. It’s interesting that the film’s ideal couple, Victor and Elena (Elena is the other half of the composition), the one that he’s been longing for throughout the film but that the film visualizes for us as his mirror image, indistinguishable from him in the act of love, is a foreigner, and not just any foreigner, but a European. Each half of the composition is a mirror of the other but also its inverse and its opposite. Is it too much to read this allegorically? This new Spain, symbolized by this new Spanish man gets rid of all that shackled him in the past to find a better, more productive and fertile union, with his European inverse complement. But is there also a new Spanish woman? The film doesn’t show us who she might be though it’s not outside the bounds of the ideas the film posits, that she’s met a nicer, more sensitive, less dictatorial Swede or Brit or Dane (hard to think of that man in Italy).
There is much more to be said about the meanings that this beautiful image of sex and equality condenses but I would here like to mention only one more as it is arguably one of the film’s greatest achievements; and that is that it is an image of love. Note how in the sex scene the camera moves in creating out of the representation of a physical act of sex an evocation of the abstract concept of love; as the camera moves in, all you begin to see is beautiful undulating shapes. Chavela Vargas — is there such a thing as a hermaphrodite voice, one that evokes both sexes at once, that in evoking both sexes comes across as multi-gendered and full of feeling? – singing ‘Somos’: ‘somos dos seres en uno que amando se mueren, para guarder en secreto lo mucho que quierén/ we are two beings in one that in loving die, to keep secret how much they love’. The camera then returns to the act of sex, she on top, each of them upside-down and then side-by-side before ending with the image with which we began, the two hands caressing those beautiful but indistinguishable bums, before cutting to dawn.
It’s a sexy and romantic image of a genderless couple, an image of sexual equality, an image of the new EEC Spain, an image of love, sex, desire, jouissance and thereby loss. It’s a beautiful image of a great moment in a wonderful film.