Review: The Skin I Live In

***originally written 29 August 2011***

It’s amazing what you can achieve on a large property with a basement or an out-house. If the horror genre and tabloid sensationalism have taught us anything, it’s that if a story’s setting involves either one of these mysterious areas of interest, then you can be sure something unsavoury is lurking in the depths of the plot. In Pedro Almodóvar’s new film The Skin I Live In, key protagonist Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) owns both. Double trouble. What’s more, Ledgard happens to be a renowned – and embittered – plastic surgeon with no qualms about breaking ethical barriers when it comes to research. …Uh-oh.

Ledgard lives on an expansive, lush property in the Spanish countryside with loyal housekeeper Marilla and one other key figure in his life; a mysterious and beautiful patient/prisoner named Vera, played by the striking Elena Anaya. Vera is a docile prisoner, accustomed to her captivity but not above testing her boundaries. And in a long, mysterious opening act, the film focuses on the interactions of the three occupants of Ledgard’s secluded estate, with its maze of doors and angular staircases holding impossible secrets like an Escher painting. Ledgard’s fascination with his subject dances a line of simmering eroticism. But the violent actions of a brutish intruder (delightfully dressed as a tiger for a local carnival) force these trapped characters to reflect on the events that brought them together, and through a series of flashbacks the sordid and stunning truths of their bizarre intertwining is revealed.

It pretty much goes without saying then that Frankenstein is a key influence in Almodóvar’s latest work; a juicily quixotic horror-cum-thriller from the Spanish auteur. My previous experience of the man’s work lies solely with 2009’s Broken Embraces, which was a sumptuous if overly languid experience. A curious story that drifted without propulsion. As such I had little to compare The Skin I Live In to, my only expectation being something of a similar sensibility. And whilst this film is just as visually arresting and generous as Broken Embraces, it shares very little other DNA in common.

The Skin I Live In belts along agreeably; never rushing itself, but so infused with rich detail and curiosity that it never allows the viewer to become bored. Its two hours fly past in an unfurling of character and unforeseen plot-turns. And so assured is Almodóvar’s direction, that you’ll accept the most audacious developments with a perverse eager glee when the film so easily could descend into farce. The director’s mark is distinct yet also refreshingly free of any sense of pretention. Everything is lavishly in service to the story being told.

The broken narration – skipping forward and back and also between viewpoints, allows Almodóvar to dish out hints and clues, teasing the viewer out along this dark and deadly high-wire act. Who is local boy Vincenté, and how is he mixed up in all of this? Where did Vera come from, and what are her motivations for wanting to stay? What terrible incident befell her to entrust herself to Banderas’ Ledgar? – A man simmering stoically with tightly kept insanity. Almodóvar has broken up the puzzle so that he can wow you with how he reassembles it. It is showmanship of the best kind, and encourages me to seek out more of his films. The performances are all just as strong as the director’s confident approach. No weak links. So whilst it is easy to applaud Banderas, it would be a disservice to Anaya or anyone else in the picture. All appear to be on top of their game here.

I am hesitant to explain any more about the secrets The Skin I Live In keeps. There is too much dark enjoyment to be had in discovering them. Suffice it to say that this slick, sinuous movie has a black heart and some warped revelations, and you’re either going to accept them or you’re not. Neither do I want to give the impression that this is a mystery tale with a twist to figure out. That’s not it at all. There is as much to be savoured in the small details here as in the larger considerations of the tale being told, as Almodóvar’s aesthetic eye draws rich beauty and fascinating detail out of the simplest of subjects.

I previously mentioned that the movie was in part a horror story, and I stick to that intently, yet the film is gloriously free of any of the stale trappings of the horror genre. There are no jumps from the shadows and, for a film with surgery at its core, very little blood spilled. No, The Skin I Live In is insidiously horrific, nightmarish in its ideas; a distantly-removed companion piece to David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, which similarly manipulated horror into more cerebral shapes. And whilst it has it’s antecedents in the likes of Frankenstein and Hollywood’s grim fascination with ‘torture porn’, every single moment feels thrillingly original. Revenge, passion, the nature of love – all come under skewed scrutiny.

I gave the last film I reviewed – Studio Ghibli’s Arrietty – five out of five. It’s a mark I reserve judiciously, and am cautious about suddenly handing out a second one in a row, but I can’t justify anything less in this instance. Quite unexpectedly Almodóvar has sculpted the film to beat this year. A must-see.

Score:  5

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