27 August 2011
REVIEW: The Skin I Live In
The Skin I Live In (2011)
Reviewer: Pierre Badiola
Rated: 18 (UK)
Release Date: Out Now (August 26)
Director: Pedro Almodovar
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes, Jan Cornet, Blanca Suárez
The Skin I Live In marks a continuation of what is becoming Almodovar’s ‘grey period’; Both this and his previous feature Broken Embraces are marked by uncharacteristically paler palettes, murkier narrative tones and more emotionally fraught material than Almodovar has possibly attempted before, if not in scope then definitely in austerity. But if Broken Embraces was a toe-dip departure for the director, The Skin I Live In is a full-blown cannonball dive. His latest non-stop gasp-a-thon is not only his best film since 2006’s Volver, it is quite possibly his most gripping, his most perilous and his most awesome -- all thanks to a deft and sober handling of what is by all accounts pretty incredulous material.
An adaptation of Thierry Jonquet’s short-novel Tarantula, The Skin I Live In is essentially one long shock corridor, propelled by mystery and the promise of earth-shattering revelations, which it delivers in spades. How Almodovar chooses to interpret Jonquet’s cabinet of macabre is through Hollywood genre thriller, though of a kind that is very close to exploitation. And I say that lovingly. The drama is rooted as much in The Human Centipede as it is in Hitchcock, as evidenced by one fetishistic long-shot of a series of surgery tools.
His characters are initially drawn with broad strokes. Antonio Banderas plays Robert Legrand, a well-respected plastic surgeon who, after falling witness to a terrible family accident, has retreated almost hermetically to his mansion estate, where he continues to pioneer medical research and surgery in his home-built lab. An almost deranged Frankenstein figure, but with a healthier Spaniard tan. His most cherished invention involves a tough, synthetic skin, which can repel fire and be grafted onto humans who have sustained irreparable burns. That’s where his pet experiment Vera comes in. Kept in isolation with only the National Geographic channel and a few self-made dolls to keep her company, she appears a victim, but when we see her interact with Legrand face-to-face she is impassive, almost a willing participant in her own imprisonment. Almodovar conflates this ambiguity with sexual tension (Stockholm Syndrome has been a theme previously explored by Almodovar and Banderas in 1990's Átame!). Her striking medical-mask (a possible nod to Eyes Without a Face or the Penelope Cruz-related Open Your Eyes), indicates she may be key, or possibly the cause, of his creation. But why? And how?
I wish I could reveal more but that would be to the detriment of the film, which itself takes sadistic pleasure in slowly unravelling the plot’s many sordid details through a variety of nested flashbacks and dreamed vignettes; a format he hasn’t used as heavily since Talk To Her (Habla con ella). Thanks to Almodovar’s decades of directorial experience this never becomes a chore; the artifice never gets in the way of the story. Each sidetrack into alternate timelines and perspectives feels constructive, as if filling in a puzzle from it’s edges.
All I can say is that it somehow involves Roberto’s secret-hoarding housekeeper Marilia (the ever reliable Marisa Paredes), a troubled young girl called Norma (played with impressive agility by 22 year-old Blanca Suárez), and a thin store clerk named Vincente (Jan Cornet).
What Almodovar gains from rousing such sensationalist horror in place of his comfort-zone of familial soap opera, he loses a little in terms of humanisation. We are left without sympathy or even the basic emotional attachments one would usually ascribe to characters onscreen for the most part -- our protagonists are purposefully deceptive, unreliable narrators, and as such for long stretches of time the audience is left rootless -- so when the final shots call for our extended sympathy it lacks the emotional punch it deserves.
However this is one small flaw that will vanish upon remembering the Skin I Live In experience. What will stick with you is the sheer ingenuity of the screenplay which allows us to revel in mystery for so long and, when the time comes, gasp in awe at it’s conclusion.