The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito)
Director : Pedro Almodóvar
Screenplay : Pedro Almodóvar (based on the novel Tarantula by Thierry Jonquet)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2011
Stars : Antonio Banderas (Robert Ledgard), Elena Anaya (Vera Cruz), Marisa Paredes (Marilia), Jan Cornet (Vicente), Roberto Álamo (Zeca), Eduard Fernández (Fulgencio), José Luis Gómez (Presidente del Instituto de Biotecnología), Blanca Suárez (Norma Ledgard)
I usually work very hard to avoid repeating myself when writing about certain auteurs whose films have so much in common stylistically, thematically, or otherwise, that it is virtually impossible not to do exactly that. But, sometimes you just have to give in, which is why I would like to begin my thoughts on Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito) by reproducing the opening paragraph of my review of his 2004 film Bad Education with the only alterations being the title and the reference to its genre(s):
In The Skin I Live In, Pedro Almodóvar’s deeply saturated horror/melodrama pastiche, past and present, fiction, and truth are so intertwined and turned around that any sense of mystery the film develops is ultimately subsumed by its incessant obsession with unknowability. In typical Almodóvar fashion, it is simultaneously a serious mystery/drama and a campy near-parody, turning its source genres inside out, but staying true to their emotional pull.
This is not meant in any way to suggest a lack of imagination or daring on Almodóvar’s part, but rather to emphasize the consistency of his obsessions and fascinations. Now that he has been making films for the better part of three and a half decades, it is astounding how they are all of a piece, and yet each intriguingly different. While his sensibilities remain largely the same, he moves fluidly through different genres, making each his own, whether it be melodrama or film noir or, in the case of The Skin I Live In, horror. Each of his films walks the tightrope between the serious and the campy, which ignites intense passions among both his defenders and his detractors (it doesn’t hurt that he is constantly poking at taboo issues, especially of the sexual variety). How well he treads that line is usually the determining criterion of how good any one of his films is, and in this regard The Skin I Live In is only fitfully effective.
Like any Almodóvar film, it features narrative twists and turns that I wouldn’t dream of betraying. Suffice it to say that the majority of the film takes place in an isolated mansion near the central Spanish city of Toledo that is owned by Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), a renowned surgeon whose expertise is facial transplants and whose feverish work in developing a tough, synthetic form of skin was spurred by the death of his wife in a fiery auto crash. For reasons that are not fully revealed until late in the film, Dr. Ledgard is keeping a beautiful young woman named Vera Cruz (Elena Anaya) captive in one of the upstairs bedrooms. Dressed in a full, flesh-colored body stocking, Vera spends her days reading and practicing yoga, and Dr. Ledgard watches her on an enormous video screen in his bedroom that turns her into another of the life-sized paintings that adorn the walls of the house. He conducts his work in a Plexiglas-enclosed laboratory in his garage, and his daily needs are tended to by Marilia (Marisa Paredes), an older woman who also works as his accomplice.
Everything that we see taking place in the present, which also involves the arrival of Zeca (Roberto Álamo), Marilia’s son who shows up unexpectedly dressed in a tiger costume, and everything we think we know is eventually turned upside down by a series of flashbacks (some of which show the same events from multiple perspectives) involving Dr. Ledgard’s traumatized teenage daughter Norma (Blanca Suárez) and a young man from town named Vicente (Jan Cornet) with whom she leaves at a party. Almodóvar (who also wrote the script) teases us with knowledge by filling in the blanks and making us rethink what we’ve already seen, but without ever fully explaining the characters’ psychologies or, in some cases, what actually happened. Given that he is playing with horror tropes, the idea of irrationality is built into the story itself, although the manner in which Almodóvar deploys it is sometimes unsatisfying. The characters are mysterious and intriguing, and the relationships they develop beg for more attention than Almodóvar ultimately gives them.
Yet, even with some of these narrative deficiencies, The Skin I Live In works in its own right as a semi-campy gloss on mad scientists, the horrors of medical experimentation, and our own conflicted relationships with the bodies we call home. In a sense, this is Almodóvar doing early Cronenberg body-horror, albeit with decidedly less visual emphasis on the physical (horrific surgeries are left off-screen and are only alluded to, and a potentially squirm-inducing moment when a character looks at a transformed body part is teasingly circumvented at the last minute).
Banderas had previously worked with Almodóvar on his notorious Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990), whose X-rating from the MPAA became fodder for controversy (happily fueled by U.S. distributor Miramax) and helped lead to the development of the NC-17. He plays Dr. Ledgar with an icy restraint and intensity that always keeps him at arm’s length, which is why Vera becomes our point of identification. In a Hitchockian twist of the Vertigo variety, Almodóvar eventually reveals that characters are not who we think they are and the very idea of victimhood, which seems so clear-cut at the beginning, is actually a sticky, murky morass that leaves the theater with us. I can’t imagine Almodóvar having it any other way.
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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