Festival du Nouveau Cinéma: ‘The Skin I Live In’ a well-crafted but unsatisfying psycho-thriller

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The Skin I Live In

Written by Pedro Almodóvar

Directed by Pedro Almodóvar

Spain, 2011

The hallowed caverns of cinema history are littered with the skeletal remains of mad scientists, those power-crazed maniacs whose unholy experiments are frequently an affront to god and to the more tangible realm of medical ethics. These sneering antagonists are driven by all-consuming desire to avenge a wrong, or save a loved one, or to play the immortal and be damned with the consequences to their perverted souls. From the translocation of limbs and organs in the likes of The Hands of Orlac and The Eye, from the shrieking transmutations in The Island of Dr. Moreau, from the perverted humor of The Thing With Two Heads, or the automaton prophecy of Metropolis, the cinema has reveled in the possibilities of man breaching the bounds of pathological and righteous decency, scorning the absurd moral framework of his era and arguing that to truly evolve and progress such outdated notions as ethics and moral responsibility must be overcome. It’s a theme that Pedro Almodóvar has cloned for his eighteenth feature The Skin I Live In, a loose adaption of Thierry Jonquet’s lurid novel Tarantula where a crazed surgeon launches a twisted revenge scheme to alleviate the bereavement he has suffered. Although the touchstones for this effort are much more aligned with two core cinematic influences – Georges Franju’s Les Yeux Sans Visage and of course James Whale’s iconic Frankenstein, being concerned as they are with the manufacture of a replacement, of an artificial decanting a cherished void, Almodóvar also ventures further afield to alight upon Vertigo in this well crafted but ultimately unsatisfying psych0-thriller.

Brilliant plastic surgeon /scientist Dr. Robert Ledgard (Anonio Banderas) is detaining a curious prisoner in his lavish villa on the outskirts of Toledo, the beautiful Vera (Elena Anaya) is confined to a

basement room and fed through a dumb-waiter operated by Robert’s house mistress Marilia (Marisa Paredes) – thus three of Almodovar’s regular actors return in this feature. Robert’s wife was involved in a horrific car accident some years earlier and Vera seems to be her uncanny double, serving as a guinea pig for an experimental form of skin graft that he is synthetically developing, although her pedigree is uncertain it is clear that affection is developing between prisoner and jailor. When Marilia’s estranged son arrives at the Villa during a street carnival (memorably dressed as a tiger in an amusing Almodóvarian flourish) she reluctantly takes him in as he’s on the lam after a high-profile robbery, and soon secrets and relationships of both families are brought to light in a darkly sensuous fashion, as the seed of Robert’s obsession and Vera’s heritage are incrementally revealed.

All the components of classic Almodóvar are present: a vibrant colour palette and tangled family histories, a permeability of gender, a dark sexuality, seductive imagery, a wry sense of humor and an arch operatic flourish. For me, however, the sum didn’t equal the possibility of its parts, perhaps it’s a personal quirk but I find his films to be simply too contrived and manufactured to generate much sympathy, and little in the way of suspense or cinematic frisson are generated by what to my mind is a poorly designed film in terms of its use of flashbacks and zig-zagging structure. Hopping around his characters smothered secrets should result in a keen sense of drama, not bewildered indifference, and what should be major plot twists and shocks are relegated to mere indifference, The Skin I Live In is certainly a stately, handsome film which does entrap the attention but when you can almost guess the next contrivance it does result in a rather tepid experience. The performances are good with Banderas in particular eschewing the moustache twirling, eyebrow twitching clichés of his fore-runners, he’s clearly a driven and obsessed soul whose tortured project is doomed to failure. I also think that like the South Koreans, Almodovar tends to expand his climaxes out to uncomfortable lengths; he has difficulty closing a film appropriately and satisfactorily without providing neat closures, specifically in this case a little more ambiguity on the fate of certain characters would have been far more illuminating and affecting. That said it is a sumptuous visual experience; the geometric designs of his interiors infiltrate the frequently brilliant wardrobes of Paco Delgado, and there is more than enough sex to go around, as someone’s at it just about every ten minutes in this film. This is vintage Almodóvar, so at least the fans of the Spanish auteur will be satisfied.

John McEntee

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