Saturday, December 17, 2011

Upcoming Release Review: The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodovar, 2011)

The Skin I Live In opens in Australian cinemas Boxing Day, but you can catch advanced sessions this weekend.

Pedro Almodovar’s newest masterpiece, The Skin I Live In, is a loose adaptation of Thierry Jonquet’s novel Tarantula. It’s the first collaboration between one-time regulars Almodovar and Antonio Banderas since Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! in 1990. The film premiered In Competition at the 64th Cannes Film Festival and has just been nominated for Best Foreign Film at the 2011 Golden Globe Awards.

The film takes place in Toledo in 2012. Renowned plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) has successfully cultivated a skin that is resistant to all burns and bites. He claims he has only tested the process on mice, but due to his confidence that it will successfully work on humans, some of his associates are suspicious of his research. In his remote estate, which also serves as a facility for medical research and secretive operations, it is revealed he is keeping a young woman named Vera (Elena Anaya - the perfect woman) captive.

She is the guinea pig for his experiments, protected by a full body stocking and confined to a locked room, full of rubber gym balls and mats and an assortment of amusements. Robert’s mother Marilla (Marisa Paredes) serves as his accomplice, keeping an eye on Vera throughout the day – communicating with her and sending her food. We wonder how long she has been in this room, but judging by the wall-to-wall scrawls, it seems to be a long time.

This is all revealed later. As is Robert’s tragic past and the motivations behind his experiments. When a man, Marilla’s other son, Zeca (Roberto Alamo), dressed in a tiger outfit turns up asking to be hidden for a few days, things begin to get weird. Well, ‘weirder’ at least. To delve into the mystery further will be a great disservice, because there are some startling twists and the film becomes something quite unexpected. Like most of his films, Almodovar chooses to weave multiple plot threads together over several different time periods, and the way Almodovar constructs each scene, in addition to his clean and simple mise-en-scene, is as methodical and masterful as Robert’s medical procedures.

The beautiful accentuation of colour is also a common feature of his films. The use of score, too, is sensational. There is something very Hitchcockian about Almodovar’s work here, though it still has a deranged sense of humour unique to him. It’s a dark psychological study into several intriguing characters and it’s very interesting to note how ones sympathies shift throughout the film. While you detest the work of Banderas’ character, you also start to feel empathetic towards him. It’s intellectually stimulating, aesthetically pleasing and more than a little messed up.

Banderas is a revelation. Best best known for his partnership with Robert Rodriguez in Desperado and Once Upon A Time in Mexico, and being the first Spaniard to portray Zorro, he has most recently been stuck in franchises – Spy Kids and Shrek. Here he plays an emotionally scarred individual suffering from immense loss in his life. In an abuse of his skill as a meticulous medical craftsman, he decides to create something for himself. Faced with the prestige of having cultivated a flawless skin, there are more sinister secrets linked to his work. Banderas demonstrates professional poise, but also possesses a cold-hearted lack of compassion and a blend of infatuation and menace. The absolutely breathtaking Elena Anaya (who actually starred in Talk to Her, and a bunch of revealing roles since then) is also excellent. She doesn't give much away, until we learn more about her, and realise that her brave performance is as perfect as her skin. 

From my experience with Almodovar’s films (everything since All About My Mother) there is a usually a central romance, and a crime of passion or lust. Here, these themes are an undercurrent to a series of macabre body horror themes, but set in a world where scientific possibilities have been enhanced and perfected by master surgeons. It’s a sinister tale of kidnapping, of male voyeurism (Robert observes Vera in an adjoining room through a camera positioned in her room), of forced manipulation, abuse of skill and of graphic sexual abuse. Simply, it has everything – and though it is often extremely unsettling and graphic in it’s depictions of sex, it always remains fascinating and is ultimately unforgettable. Trying to guess where the film twists to next is definitely a tempting exercise, but I’d recommend just allowing it all to fall into place itself.

There will be times when a viewer will struggle to make sense of what has happened and why it did – but Almodovar is a man who creates thought-provoking films, but it's never unjustified why they evolve as they do. The only fault I have with the Almodovar’s fine direction and his screenplay is the way that one specific arc of the story, and the relationship between two of the characters is explained. Though the revelation is a surprise, the execution left me feeling a bit misinformed and confused about the whole situation. With Almodovar utilizing flashback I guess he didn’t want to overdo it by providing an additional flashback tale. I thought showing what happened to Robert’s daughter from multiple perspectives was an interesting way of building the characters involved.

A high-speed pursuit sequence, with the characters supposedly clocking over 100km/h, also stood out as being a weak sequence. But with such a great use of score during that scene, it is easy to forgive. Then there is sinister veil encompassing the story, which offers no reprieve – which will leave some viewers repulsed and feeling queasy and popular opinions to be divisive. It’s certainly not as accessible as some of Almodovar’s other masterpieces, but The Skin I Live In, for me, is his best film since Talk to Her back in 2002. It’s on the rare occasion I get a tear in my eye at the end of a film, but this is one of the most affecting experiences of the year. If you are seeking an absorbing and atmospheric film that presents a confronting challenge, then I highly recommend seeking it out.

My Rating: ★★★★1/2 (A-)


  1. I think this is definitely one of Almodovar's best. In fact, he's pretty much been on a role making great to excellent films since 1995's The Flowers of My Secret that also starred Marisa Paredes. I'm glad to see Antonio Banderas working with Almodovar again and I hope the two do another film but with Penelope Cruz and other Almodovar regulars. Hopefully another comedy.

  2. Hear hear. I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. Anaya was gorgeous, Banderas suitably intense, and Almodovar rascallish.

  3. This film's plot was insane but in a good way. I can only imagine how much fun Almodovar had making the film. I agree that the chase scene was poorly executed but I found it to be a rather minor flaw all things considered. Regardless, the film is miles better than his last film, Broken Embraces.

    Also, if you get a chance, I highly recommend you check out some of the pre-All About My Mother films (eg. Live Flesh, Woman on the Verge..., Matador, etc.)

  4. Interesting review, I may catch this one sometimes, but it just doesn't interest me! Haha.

  5. @ Steven - I really should check out some of Almodovar's work before All About My Mother. Banderas was great - and though I have seen Banderas and Salma Hayek do some work together, Banderas and Cruz would be an interesting combo. Of course, I'd love to have Anaya back!

    @ Colin - Almodovar was rascallish wasn't he? I was stunned - the masterful craftsmanship. Just as Banderas' character built the perfect skin, Almodovar was also giving himself a new look, and cultivating his best work yet.

    @ CS - I actually enjoyed Broken Embraces (and Volver too) but I agree this is much better. I think the chase scene is easily forgivable. The plot gets very strange, pretty quickly, but it's always intriguing. There is never a dull moment, and plenty of times when you say to yourself in disbelief: "no, no". I will have to seek out the ones you listed. Thanks for the recommendations. I saw you also just reviewed it - I'll jump on the site and check out your thoughts!

    @ Matt - It's certainly not for everyone, but it's a pretty unforgettable experience!

  6. This is an MA15 right? I might watch it if I get the chance while I'm on holiday. I saw the trailer and it looked extremely bizarre! Just what I like.

  7. It is MA15+

    The tailer is great - and the film is not at all like you expect!

    I hope you get the chance to see it.