The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodóvar 2011) – DVD / Blu-ray review
Continuing my catch-up of 2011 films I forgot to publish my reviews of. Blogging doesn’t get more exciting than this, really, does it?
The Skin I Live In
(Pedro Almodóvar, Sp, 2011)
Plastic surgery, Almodóvar-style – beneath, the ice-cold horror-movie facade, the heart within beats with the same tempestuous rhythm as before
When I reviewed Pedro Almodóvar’s last film, Broken Embraces, I pondered whether the Spanish master had run out of things to say, and retreated into his comfort zone. Ahead of release, The Skin I Live In promised to be something of a new start – an ice-cold, clinically precise thriller about a macabre plastic surgeon keeping a patient hostage to experiment on – and yet check out the title. This is a director totally comfortable in his own skin, so much so he can tackle any kind of material and somehow make it it his own.
Based on a novel called Tarantula, this is Almodóvar’s first adaptation since Live Flesh. Then, he successfully transposed a British Ruth Rendell mystery into his heightened, melodramatic Spain; here, he takes a story that David Cronenberg would have loved (if the surgery element wasn’t enough of a comparison, Cronenberg has actually made a film called Spider!) and warps it into familiar Almodóvar territory. Despite the (self-conscious) absence of obvious laughs, The Skin I Live In is a properly hysterical movie, full of mad twists and a trangressive, gender-bending core that hasn’t been seen in Almodóvar since his 1980s era as an enfant terrible.
And, aptly, the director has cast the poster boy of that era, Antonio Banderas, in the main role – although he’s cast significantly against type. Back then, Banderas was cocky, exuberant and sexy; here, he is a figure at once sinister and pathetic, in thrall to grief and vengeance and the classic mad scientist trope of doing things that are beyond the pale in the supposed name of progress. The performance is a measure of Almodóvar’s late-period maturity; the narrative web is as deranged as it ever was, but he’s now capable of putting sophisticated, subtle characters at the centre.
Banderas’ role is also an obvious nod to Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo, another film where the audience is asked to recoil at a matinee idol suddenly getting their kicks from being a seedy voyeur. It’s no coincidence that Almodóvar gives away his twist halfway through, just as Hitchcock once did – it’s a move that gives the film’s final act a deeper, darker quality that it wouldn’t otherwise have had. That said, it also gives you time to rip the logic of the plot into tiny shreds, just as Elena Alaya’s prisoner does to her dresses.
Otherwise, The Skin I Live In is business as usual. Immaculate decor framed in bold, formal compositions; camp, if not outright bonkers, scenarios like a villain dressed in a carnival tiger costume; Hollywood in-jokes (a character is named Vera Cruz); plenty of flesh from the female lead; rape scenes staged with such controversial, deadpan insouciance that you half want to laugh in spite of yourself. As ever, the surface is silkily seductive but the edges jagged with pain and regret, a combination that works in spite of itself. Like the film, this might fancy itself developing a new, tougher second skin, but underneath it’s pure Almodóvar.