Written by: Pedro Almodóvar (screenplay), Thierry Jonquet (novel)
Directed by: Pedro Almodóvar
Starring: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya and Jan Cornet
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
There are people obsessed with other people...
The logical launching point for discussing Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film is Eyes Without a Face; in addition to the obvious plot similarities (mad doctors doing skin reconstruction in each), Almodóvar himself has admitted the influence of Georges Franju’s classic, which is a beautiful film about the ugly things we do out of desperation . The Skin I Live In can also boast that--it is undoubtedly gorgeously realized, but it delves even more deeply into the hideous depths of a man’s mind and soul.
It’s even structured similarly to Eyes Without a Face, at least initially, as we learn that Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) has been performing skin experiments on a girl named Vera (Elena Anaya). We get the details when he delivers a speech to his fellow scientists that explains his radical advancements in grafting skin onto burn victims using genetic mutations that are of course frowned upon. As if his impending status as a medical pariah weren’t enough, he’s jolted when his criminal half-brother shows up at his house, on the run from the law; he notices Vera and is immediately aroused and attempts to rape her.
That sounds like enough plot for one movie, but this is just the elaborate set-up, as the brother’s intrusion sets off the chain of events that take us through a wickedly disturbing journey of revenge that illuminates the real story here: how Vera wandered into Ledgard’s tragic life. Already haunted by the death of his own wife, who was severely burned in a fire (and thus gives him inspiration), he is forced to suffer further tragedy with his daughter, and this is what eventually breaks him. The fallout is incredible and riveting---my sympathies were bouncing around all over the place because the cycle of revenge is thorough. Victims become victimizers as the narrative wreaks havoc on audience expectations, sending them down one wild rabbit hole filled with both psychological and physical torment.
This isn’t necessarily a movie that you watch through your fingers--you’ll squirm enough, but you’ll mostly be shifting in your chair hoping that it isn’t going where you think it is. There’s not really a big, shocking twist as much as a creeping realization that begins to settle in on your mind; it begins to gain traction, then it suddenly clicks. When that moment happened for me, I almost wondered aloud if the story was really going there. And then it did, and I was no less horrified because some supremely fucked up things are going on. This isn’t just a revenge story--it’s a full blown tableau of madness on both ends. Ledgard is obviously insane, but Vera might be victim to a most unbelievable form of Stockholm Syndrome. The transformative psychosis underpinning both is almost as disturbing as the physical terrors perpetrated; this is true body horror in the vein of Cronenberg, only it’s a bit more refined and elegant, though no less terrifying in the way it doubles back onto and directly affects the psyche. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a film where both parties became so enraptured in this cycle--revenge isn’t quite enough for Ledgard; instead, he takes it further and attempts to remold all that he’s lost using his deranged methods. I could summarize just how sadly disturbing his plot is with just one sentence, but I will refrain, lest I ruin the film’s best shocks.
But rest assured, this crisscrossing journey (which bounces around over the course of several years) is compelling due to the two principles. The first thing you’ll notice about Anaya’s Vera is how drop-dead gorgeous she is--she’s got these huge, glossy doe-eyes that always seem to be on the verge of tears. Her skin is smooth, almost too slick--like a mannequin; she’s confined to a room within Ledgard’s house, where we watch her lounge about, and she’s sometimes arranged on the screen as if she were a carefully posed doll. And the more we see of her (especially when she’s well-lit), the more artificial she seems--we know that she is somehow a product, that her skin isn’t her own, but the horrifying depths that are eventually plumbed go beyond that.
The other component is her captor, a slick and only subtly menacing mad scientist. Banderas is suave and dapper, exhibiting this ultra cool exterior that masks all of the inner torment. He earns our sympathy simply because of what he’s endured--there’s a deeply heartbreaking and horrifying scene where he visits his daughter in a mental institution. She cowers and whimpers in fear as he approaches her, mistaking him for the rapist that wrecked her own mind; it’s intensely sad, and the despair on Banderas face makes us forget that this guy is completely unhinged. Most psychos of this sort would be content to put some hatchets to use to maim and torture his enemies; Ledgard, however, is has this demented, dark Romanticism about him. At some point, his endgame shifts from revenge to some sort of impossible denial that moves The Skin I Live In to some bizarre, twisted places.
It could ultimately inhabit a schlock corridor because, as its basic level, this is grand pulp stuff with an underlying hint of camp. However, Almodóvar lifts it above that; his camera captures some staggering images, and the whole thing is slick and resists sterility (though that would be kind of appropriate). With the exception of Ledgard’s filthy torture dungeon, even the set designs are sleek, matching the central obfuscation surrounding Vera’s (whose name ironically translates into “truth”) body. Her small chamber is blindingly white and glossy, but Almodóvar carefully cuts around it and doesn’t reveal certain angles until the film’s climax, where we see how even this has been defaced. The Skin I Live In is all about deformities, both visible and invisible, with the latter eventually being the most haunting and, well, skin-crawling. Buy it!
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