Frustratingly, out of the four titles that I was anticipating the most in 2011, only Pedro Almodovar’s “The Skin I Live In” will I be able to see this year (interestingly when I first wrote about it at the start of the year, the film was still going by its alternate title “The Skin I Inhabit”). While that is certainly disappointing, what is not is “The Skin I Live In”, a demented revenge horror / thriller hybrid that is difficult to define into any one specific genre, which is a great strength of the film. When the film was originally announced, depending on which website you read, you could have got one of two different plotlines for the film. The first was that the film was centred on a plastic surgeon who was hunting down his daughter’s rapist in an attempt for revenge, while the other was about again, a plastic surgeon, trying to come up with an artificial skin after his wife has been in a car accident and horrifically burned. Having two completely different plotlines was confusing because the audience had no idea what the film was really about and which one was the real plot. So which one was it? Well it turns out that both plots are indeed part of this amazing film.
This is another one of those films that is incredibly hard to talk about because the film is best experienced when you go into it knowing as little as possible, so as such I will be talking as little as I can about the plot (I should point out here that when I talked about the film in my “2011 Preview” I actually give away the main twist of the film, so please do not read that section before seeing this film). “The Skin I Live In” begins in the present (well, it is actually the future, because the film is set in 2012) in Toledo, Spain where we meet Robert, a brilliant plastic surgeon who has just created a synthetic skin strong enough that it cannot be burned or even penetrated by a mosquito, thus would be a great defense against diseases like malaria. Robert is presenting his findings to a room of funders and doctors, explaining that although he has only tested the skin on mice, he is sure that it would work on humans too. One of Robert’s friends quickly realizes that the only way the skin would work would be by mutating the cells of a human, which is considered unethical in the medical profession and he orders Robert to shut down his experiments or suffer the consequences.
Robert agrees to quit his experiments explaining that it was more of a personal thing in honour of his deceased wife. After the conference he returns to his large mansion which also houses a small hospital which currently has one patient, a young woman named Vera, whom Robert spies on via cameras in the comfort of his own bedroom. Robert is obsessed with this woman because she bares more than a passing resemblance to his dead wife. However it soon becomes obvious that all is not what it seems in regards to this patient, as she is treated more like a prisoner or even an experiment rather than a patient, as Vera is constantly locked in her room and can only make contact with the outside world via an intercom in her room, which is only answered by either Robert himself, or his maid, Marilia. Further complications arise and suspicions confirmed when Marilia’s son, Zeca, visits the house unannounced and also notices the eerie resemblances between Vera and Robert’s dead wife, Gal. Is this woman really Gal finally recovered from her horrific burns or has Robert molded someone into the image of his believed-to-be deceased wife?
Before these questions can be answered, the film goes back six years in time, when Robert and his daughter, Norma, attend the wedding of one of their friends. It is at this wedding that Norma briefly meets Vincente and in his drug-induced haze, the boy ends up raping the young girl in a near-by garden at the wedding. Robert soon realizes that Norma is missing and when he finds his daughter she is passed out in the garden. When she comes to, and sees her father, she immediately associates her father with her rape and her mind shatters. From here, Robert is determined to find the boy who abused his little girl and make him pay for it. That is basically all I can say about the film, as it is best to experience all of the film’s secrets for yourself. While it is a revenge film, do not go into it thinking this will be like the films Quentin Tarantino makes, this is pure Almodovar, and is so demented that after the film is over and you really think about what you have just witnessed, you will be shocked at it all. The film is full of violence, sex, rape, torture and it has one of the most insane love stories you are ever likely to see on a cinema screen.
“The Skin I Live In” is strangely both, unlike anything that Pedro Almodovar has ever done, and yet the whole thing feels like it is pure Almodovar, there is no mistaking that this film could have been made by anyone else. Like all of Almodovar’s films, “The Skin I Live In” is immaculately designed, it is thoroughly gorgeous, which also brought to mind another of my favourite directors, South Korea’s Park Chan-Wook. Both directors have an uncanny sense when it comes to the image of the film, and how to make it look stylized and stunning without taking away from the narrative. In fact, the image is an important theme within “The Skin I Live In” with characters constantly looking at one another via electronic screens trying to determine if what they are seeing is really the truth. An expansion of this is that the film also deals with identity or the loss of identity and how much the “image” of a person defines who they really are. With plastic surgery as a backdrop to the film, it makes this theme easy to explore. Speaking of the image, Almodovar’s semi-regular cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine returns (he did not lens Almodovar’s previous film “Broken Embraces”) and predictably achieves stunning results. However as opposed to previous films by this director, the usual palette of bright and stunning colours has been replaced in “The Skin I Live In” with much cooler colours full of blues, blacks, grays and silvers, to create a muted almost cold look, which suits the world of surgery, not to mention the dark tale being told.
Almodovar’s greatest collaborator (at least behind the camera, that is) is Alberto Iglesias who has provided all of the original music to his features since 1995’s “The Flower Of My Secret”, and his work on “The Skin I Live In” is stellar, it would easily rank right up there with his best. I rarely talk about music in my reviews because truthfully I do not know much about it, but I know what I like and whether or not it is accentuating my movie viewing experience, and this score certainly does that. It is simply brilliant.
When speaking of collaborators, one of the biggest in regards to the early cinema of Almodovar, had to be actor Antonio Banderas. He appeared in five of the director’s first eight films, and always was a presence in them. “The Skin I Live In” marks the first time in twenty-one years that this actor / director duo have worked together (since 1990’s “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” – incidentally, my first Almodovar film), and it is great to see that they can still produce magic. It is the first time in ages that Banderas has looked truly comfortable in a role, and seeing him speak his native tongue again makes you remember just how good an actor he can be. The way he plays the difficult role of Dr. Robert Ledgard, the mad scientist of the piece, is brilliant because instead of being over-the-top and manic (“It’s Alive! It’s Alive!”), Banderas actually underplays him, which helps the viewer to sympathise with the man even though he is doing some terrible things. You can tell that Robert is a shattered man just looking for love (in all the wrong places) and even though he may be the villain of the piece, he is also very much a victim too, and Banderas is able to deliver this through his performance. In fact, most of the characters in the film are defined in grays because no-one is all good or all bad.
The closest character in the film that can be defined as good is Marilia, Robert’s maid, who is played by the amazing Marisa Paredes (another regular Almodovar collaborator – this is her third film with him). Personally I think she steals the movie because whenever she is on screen the film just lit up for me. This is strange because her character doesn’t have a massive role to play but Paredes certainly made it a memorable one.
The other actor that needs to be mentioned has to be Elena Anaya who plays the mysterious patient Vera Cruz. This is such a difficult role with such complex emotions contained within that if Almodovar found the wrong actor for this part, the film wouldn’t have worked. Luckily Anaya is perfect in the role, where at times she seems vulnerable and at other times, very strong. It is actually hard to talk about her performance in detail because a lot of the twists in this film revolve around her character, but let me just say that she is fantastic and I hope that she gets to work with Almodovar again and soon.
As much as I loved this film, I will mention that I didn’t find the conclusion of the film to be entirely satisfactory. It just seemed to end, which was slightly disappointing to me, as I was hoping for another final twist or something. Overall, though, this is exciting cinema from Almodovar that I recommend wholeheartedly to fans of this director. If you are new to Almodovar’s work, you may be in for a shock, especially in terms of where the story actually goes, but no matter what your opinion of the material may be, it is still easy to see that Almodovar is an expert at his craft. “The Skin I Live In” is, as usual, expertly crafted and was very much worth the wait. As usual I now like forward to the next Almodovar film, but until then this film adaptation of Thierry Jonquet’s novel “Tarantula” , will definitely get a number of re-watches. Definitely recommended!