REVIEW: The Skin I Live In

The Skin I Live In
Directed by: Pedro Almodóvar
Written by: Pedro Almodóvar & Agustín Almodóvar (screenplay), Thierry Jonquet (novel)
Starring: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes and Jan Cornet

The art of the surprise twist is something you just don’t see a lot of in modern movies, but Pedro Almodóvar sure as hell pulls one off in The Skin I Live In (assuming that like me you haven’t read the source novel beforehand).  Almodóvar makes his horror debut with this film, though his aesthetic touches from recent films like Broken Embraces and Volver remain well in tact.

Beautifully art directed sets and the lusciously costumed stars combine quite well with the truly deranged story.  Antonio Banderas stars as the demented plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard, who is keeping a woman named Vera (Elena Anaya) hostage in his home to do synthetic skin experiments on.  After the tragic death of his wife, who committed suicide after seeing what she looked like after being burnt in a car crash. Ledgard becomes obsessed with recreating Vera in her image.

Vera’s origins create much of the movie’s mysteries, and Almodóvar structures it for maximum impact.  The first half of The Skin I Live In sets up the the previously explained premise, but the second half flashes back six years and takes us up to that point and then beyond.  Besides a rather dull beginning and a few awkward pacing issues, this director’s first foray into horror is chilling.  He doesn’t descend into cheap gory cop-outs, but rather creates tension out of the horrific psychology of Ledgard and the other characters.

It’s easy to forget that Antonio Banderas is quite a capable actor, since we’re so used to hearing him voice an animated cat lately instead of actually appearing in front of the camera.  He gets the most important thing about Ledgard right: the eyes.  Much of what he says has impact only because of those deep pools of madness.  His quest to recreate his lost love has echoes of Vertigo early on, but the script transcends that into something unique.

The Skin I Live In is a successful horror exercise not because it’s shocking, though that does help.  It works because it lets no one off the hook; Ledgard’s actions are monstrous, but the traumas he’s gone through make them at least somewhat understandable if not forgivable.  Vera also suffers and causes suffering, though giving any more away would be a greater sin than any committed in this movie.

At the heart of Almodóvar’s skin-crawling film is gender dynamics.  Ledgard keeps dominion over his posh Spanish living space, controlling every aspect of Vera’s life directly and his mother indirectly by making her an accessory to it.  The biggest narrative catalyst is none of those main three though, but Ledgard’s equally crazed but more extroverted step brother Zeca (Roberto Álamo), who arrives during the time of Carnival under the guise of “visiting,” ties up their mother and rapes Vera.

This gruesome scene has echoes of A ClockworkOrange, as Zeca tears into Vera’s latex skin suit and forces himself upon her as the mother watches on security cameras in helpless terror.  From this scene’s equally violent end on, the dynamic between all of the characters is forever shifted.  Ledgard sees his wife being violated instead of Vera, and she now holds some form of control over him.

With that shift combined with the knowledge of her disturbing origins in the flashback sequences, The Skin I Live In transforms itself into a film that isn’t just a horror genre exercise.  It becomes a movie actually about horror, whether it be of the body, the mind or the intersection of the two.  In other words, Almodóvar is staking the directorial territory of David Cronenberg albeit with his own aesthetic flourishes.  The awkward rough patches that come from this kind of drastic experiment are overshadowed by the haunting beauty of the overall whole.  That’s also a good way to describe Ledgard’s operations.

Grade: B

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