Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
October 2011

The Skin I Live In

Skins game

Despite third-act question marks, Almodovar's lean, surgical 'The Skin I Live In' is as twisted and brilliant as its insane protagonist

The Skin I Live In
Sony Pictures Classics
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Screenplay: Pedro Almodóvar, based on the novel Tarantula, by Thierry Jonquet
Starring: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes, Jan Cornet, Blanca Suárez and Roberto Álamo
Rated R / 1 hour, 57 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

Few directors' films are as instantly recognizable as those of Pedro Almodóvar. And few directors are as distinctly cinematic - those sinister, Hitchcockian undertones suggesting something lurking underneath, the brashly melodramatic stories ironically refashioned by bold splashes of bright reds and yellows. Before a character has spoken a word, you'll know you're watching an Almodóvar film.

Granted, that kind of stylistic recognizability can be a handicap as well (you wouldn't want the brand to overshadow the film itself) - but that's one of the reasons why his newest film, The Skin I Live In, is so interesting. It is both a vintage piece and a thrilling new direction for the Oscar-winning Spanish filmmaker, as he shifts into the area of macabre science-fiction.

One might also call this a horror film, except it approaches its material with fascination, not revulsion; it doesn't recoil in terror, but lingers with intense concentration. Almodóvar's precision is as clinical as that of his main character, Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), a brilliant surgeon who may or may not be insane. And if he is, well, that may just be the price of genius, right?

Ledgard's conducts experiments on the side that don't exactly pass ethical muster, but he is undeterred. He tells an audience of fellow scientists that he has successfully created a new type of skin - a skin that feels as natural and soft as natural human skin, but which is more durable, and will not burn.

He insists he's only tested this experiment on mice, and that it was merely for research purposes and he'll now wash his hands of it. But we know better. We know because the film opens in his home (which doubles as a lab), where we see a beautiful young woman (Elena Anaya) seemingly imprisoned there. She's been there for quite some time, and Almodóvar hints at a history of mental instability we'll find out more about later. Early on, she asks Ledgard's housekeeper, Marilia (Marisa Paredes), for a needle and thread. For knitting, she says. But Marilia is no fool.

What exactly Ledgard is up to, and in exactly what way Marilia is complicit, we don't yet know. What we do find out pretty early on is that the young woman, Vera, seems to bear a striking resemblance to the good doctor's wife - a wife who, years earlier, suffered a tragic fate after a car accident left her with burns all over her body. And so the seeds of obsession were sown.

At this point, things appear to have cleared up - Ledgard's experiment, his state of mind, and the reason why that enigmatic young woman in the form-fitting body suit is locked in his house. We think we've got a good handle on where everything fits.

We do not. At all. Only when three other characters and two other key incidents from the past come into focus do we begin to understand the immensity of the situation. At that point, we can shriek, or we can laugh. Depends on your state of mind, I guess.

What we ultimately discover is the most deranged version of Vertigo you could imagine - alongside a revenge storyline that's about as twisted as anything you're likely to see. (Not including Korean cinema, of course.) It's hard to watch the film without thinking of Georges Franju's great Eyes Without a Face, but this movie goes oh-so much farther. Almodóvar's treatment of the material is so deliberate, his commentary so enigmatic; he's able to contextualize what happens in such a way that, while we may be horrified by what we discover, we're not horrified in quite the way we might expect to be. Somehow, he gets to a deeper, stranger level. When everything is revealed and we consider the actions and motivations of the characters, we might think, "Well, when you think about it, that's almost a little sweet . . . if only it weren't so absolutely demented and morally repulsive."

A key to the film's effectiveness, and to holding down the sense of detached unease Almodóvar does such a fine job creating, is Banderas' performance. He is a statue of absolute calm, a man fiercely obsessed, but just as fierce in his determination not to be emotionally overwhelmed by that obsession.

My enthusiasm for The Skin I Live In wavered only in the last 15 minutes - in fact, my disappointment is largely because of the previous 100 minutes. Almodóvar runs into the common problem of not knowing how to resolve his story. The way he chooses to go about it makes perfect sense; it just seems odd that that's the best he could come up with.

The penultimate scene is particularly anticlimactic; it's a scene we could get - in fact, would expect - in any other run-of-the-mill thriller, from its basic conceit to the staging of the scene itself. The rest of the film is worthy of much better than its final sequences. Yet even the underwhelming ending can't diminish all that's great about The Skin I Live In, in all its delicious, absurd, revolting glory.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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