FILM REVIEW: The Skin I Live In (2011)

The Skin I Live In (Spain, 2011)
Directed by Pedro Almodovar
Starring Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes, Jan Cornet

I first saw the trailer for Pedro Almodovar's The Skin I Live In at the Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle, while waiting patiently for Sarah's Key to start. The trailer was immensely creepy, and my immediate reaction was the exclamation: "Blimey! He's turned into Georges Franju!". It was through such a reaction that I was compelled to return the following week, to catch one of the most intriguing films of the year.If Black Swan was Darren Aronofsky's version of Suspiria, The Skin I Live In is Pedro Almodovar's take on Georges Franju's horror classic Eyes Without A Face. He takes the premise, plot and iconic imagery of what is still one of the scariest horror movies ever made, throws in his trademark blend of melodrama, gender politics and soap opera, and then cranks everything up to eleven. The result, like Black Swan, is frequently ridiculous, but also strange, engrossing and intensely memorable.Although precious little of his career has been based in or concerned with horror, Almodovar knows the genre well enough to pay knowing tribute to several iconic entries in the canon. The references to Eyes Without A Face are clear both in the film and in its publicity, especially in the white face mask which our heroine wears for most of the film. The plot loosely follows the same arc, although instead of stealing other people's faces, the obsessive mad scientist irrevocably alters a criminal's identity and gender as payback for what happened to his wife and daughter.Antonio Banderas' character looks back to the cinematic tradition of mad scientists, beginning of course with Rotwang from Metropolis. But his closest equivalent is Vincent Price in The Abominable Dr. Phibes, a campy, schlocky B-movie in which Price plays a zombie scientist who recreates the Biblical plagues of Egypt to avenge the death of his wife. Finally the surgical sequences, which are particularly graphic, recall the famous eye-slice sequence in Un Chien Andalou, whose surrealist sensibility mirrors Almodovar's interest in the supernatural.Mark Kermode remarked that one unique aspect of cinema is its ability to make acts of painstaking construction inherently seductive. In other words, watching someone assembling a gun or performing an operation on screen has an engrossing quality, so that we are drawn in even knowing that what we are seeing is, on one level, totally repulsive. If the surgical scenes in The Skin I Live In are anything to go by, Kermode was right on the money. There is something inherently sinister about surgical equipment on screen, but even as we recoil at what may (or may not) be happening, Almodovar's camera is coaxing us to lean in for a closer look.The Skin I Live In has a number of deeply uncomfortable scenes which in the hands of a lesser filmmaker would cause the whole project to collapse. The scenes of Vicente being hosed down and kept prisoner in the cellar are very close to the aesthetic of so-called torture porn. But even in its most tortuous moments the film never tips over into the territory of Captivity, i.e. condoning or encouraging any sadism on our part.A similar issue could be taken with the amount of nudity in the film, and particularly with the way in which it is presented. In one lengthy scene, Robert Ledgard (Banderas) begins to cover 'Vera' in the new skin which he has been cultivating. We see Vera's exposed breasts and genitalia in close up over a long take, while Robert guides the new material over her body with tweezers. As before, it's uncomfortable, but Almodovar holds his nerve and prevents the scene from becoming gratuitous through very careful editing.Like all the best horror films, The Skin I Live In is not gruesome or graphic for its own sake. It's very rare to get a horror film about gender politics, let alone one whose approach is so nuanced and intelligent. Where previous efforts like Teeth eventually abandoned or distorted their feminist credentials, this film puts its audience through the mill if it has t, in order to keep its sense of conviction.The film explores the notion of gender identity, and to what extent one's gender is defined by one's physical appearance. When Robert captures Vicente, wanting revenge for the rape of his daughter, the easy thing to do would be to castrate him, in the manner of Hard Candy or Teeth. Instead, Robert's retribution is more twisted, giving Vicente a vagina so that he has to experience some degree of womanhood for the rest of his life.After his daughter's death, brought on by a Repulsion-like fear of men, Robert takes his guinea pig a little further. What started as an act of retribution steadily transmutes into something a great deal more twisted, as Vicente is shaped into a near-perfect copy of Robert's wife, who is isolated from the outside world and used by Robert for sexual pleasure. In these scenes Robert truly emerges as a monster, who has forsaken the life-saving benefits of his research to satisfy his urges and atone for his mistakes.The film's exploration of gender identity is concentrated in the behaviour of 'Vera'. For most of the film we believe convincingly that she is wholly a woman - even before the massive twist, we don't have any reason to doubt that she identifies as such. Once we know what has been done to 'her', we come to believe that one's identity is indeed determined by physical factors. But as with Eyes Without A Face, the final rebellion turns all of this on its head, with 'Vera' revealing what or who she truly is in the gripping final scene.Like most of Almodovar's work, The Skin I Live In combines this twisted and sinister storyline with laugh-out-loud, awkward humour. The jokes frequently come at the expense of the characters involved, particularly 'Vera'. In one scene, Robert brings out a box of dildos of increasing size, and lays them out on the table while instructing his most prized possession about how and when to use each one. The camera then cuts to the line of dildos, with Vera looking startled behind her mask in the background.The Skin I Live In is at heart a melodrama: it has a relatively simple story (albeit one with a cracker of a twist), which relies on the memorability of the characters to give the story depth and credibility. Almodovar's characterisation is complex but very overt, and the manner in which he introduces characters tells us pretty much all we need to know. When we first meet Antonio Banderas, he is giving a lecture in which the lights cast deep shadows under his eyes: before he has even said a word, we know he is up to no good.Because The Skin I Live In is so deeply rooted in melodrama, it does require a lot of patience both to buy into the various twists and to put up with the more histrionic sections of the plot. Flashing back to events six years prior to the beginning works very well, but if you find yourself getting incredulous over the central plot device, you'll struggle to put up with the man dressed as a tiger. As with Black Swan, there is a sense of the ridiculous in all of this, but as long as we are in the zone with the characters, that sense should not override our enjoyment.The Skin I Live In is one of the most intriguing and engrossing films of 2011. It is a little too long, and we do have to hold our nerve in the more ridiculous moments. But with enough patience the substance and chills of Almodovar come surging through. Antonio Banderas gives his best performance in quite some time, and Elena Anaya is a great match, having previously shone in the underrated Savage Grace. It's a twisted, creepy and tantalising work, which in its finest moments gives Black Swan a run for its money.

Rating: Photobucket
Verdict: The Spanish Black Swan


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