I wonder what the weather’s like on Pedro Almodovar’s planet.
Far from abashed in his vivid, emotional, colourful productions which are frequently awash with dark and highly sexual undertones, he has certainly put his stamp on the film industry and is commonly regarded as the most successful and internationally-known Spanish filmmaker of our time.
High Heels, Live Flesh, All About My Mother, Talk to Her, Bad Education, Volver, Broken Embraces – you may not have heard of all of them, but if you’re a fan of Spanish cinema; or Penelope Cruz, then you will have likely seen at least a couple. Almodovar’s worked with Cruz some four times to date, only besting this record with his number of collaborations with actor Antonio Banderas.
Long before Banderas was Zorro, Desperado or Puss in Boots, he starred in a number of early Almoldovar films, including Matador, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and the controversial Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! – and arguably these are the movies that kick-started his film career and introduced him to Hollywood.
After a decade of successes and then a decade of lacklustre films that have seen his popularity wane, it seems only appropriate for Banderas to return to his native Spanish – and to the director that launched his career in the first place – to give us one of his best performances in years.
A direct translation of the original Spanish title – La piel que habito – The Skin I Live In tells the seemingly discrete stories of 3 different people – a woman who appears to be being held captive in a stately home; a scarred criminal on the run from the police and looking for a new face; and a young man whose going-nowhere life and casual drug habit leads to things that he could never have imagined. We soon learn – unsurprisingly – that their paths actually all interconnect, mainly through one common factor: Dr. Robert Ledgard. A world-renowned plastic surgeon, he has been perfecting a groundbreaking new synthetic skin which could be used to help burn victims (his wife died after being extensively burned), and even prevent the spread of insect-borne disease – the skin both impervious to heat and insect bites. When pressed on how he knows that this new skin will work where other artificial skin treatments have failed, he insists that his tests were purely upon mice, but – as some of his colleagues suspect – he has a dark secret back at his mansion home, in his own self-made laboratory.
Based on the French novel Mygale (aka Tarantula) by author Thierry Jonquet, writer/director Almodovar spent some 10 years working on his adaptation; fine-tuning the script until it was more in-line with the running style in his oeuvre, the end result retaining the key story arcs and character designs but baring his distinctive mark.
Indeed the end result is a twisted, nightmarish fairytale; a Greek tragedy of epic proportions; a revenge story, the magnitude of which you will likely never have come across before. It’s a body horror film yet without the gore – the true horror being dealt out as death-blows punctuated across the non-linear narrative, as you slowly realise the full extent of the madness behind it all.
It’s a creepy yet utterly compelling tale; the malevolent undercurrent brimming beneath the surface, leaving you feeling uneasy throughout. Who is this girl locked up? Why has she been locked up? Why does the doctor treat her with such contempt? Is she a terrible burn victim? Is he haunted by the fact that she reminds him of his dead wife?
As the story progresses – depending on how au fait you are with predicting cinematic twists – it slowly dawns on you that you’ve been watching a horror tale unfold right before your eyes, without even knowing it. The true horrors have happened before the movie even begins, but you must get to the end to see the full picture.
Reuniting with Almodovar after more than two decades apart, Antonio Banderas returns to Spanish language moviemaking with a vengeance. He is absolutely superb as the obsessive yet seemingly detached ‘mad’ doctor, bringing us a remarkably subtle, nuanced and understated performance that is brimming with latent, sympathetic traits despite his overtly reprehensible actions. It’s Banderas’s most interesting role in years – arguably since his last tour of duty with Almodovar – and it’s remarkable just what a difference it makes for him to play a part in his native Spanish; so often is he pigeon-holed into playing the clichéd character of the seductive European, so distinctive is his accent and look. Yet here he utterly convinces as a disturbed – and disturbing – doctor who is at once revered in the medical community whilst also being something of a dangerous law unto himself.
Originally scripted by Almodovar to be a vehicle for both of his most frequent collaborating actors – Banderas and Penelope Cruz – co-starring duties eventually went to another Almodovar muse, Elena Anaya (Talk to Her, Point Blank), who more than holds her own opposite Banderas as the seemingly innocent victim trapped at the heart of his mad doctor’s diabolical schemes. She’s strikingly beautiful, yet somehow not quite real – her face often looking beyond natural in its perfection, which is, of course, exactly what is required with the character. Beyond just the look, Anaya plays the part perfectly, with just enough drive and yearning to escape, but also that strange sense of creeping inevitability about her – inevitability that you soon realise has set solid within her over a protracted period of incarceration.
Juxtaposing the slow-burning sympathy you feel for Banderas’s creepy doctor, Almodovar also ebbs away at the sympathy you innately have for his supposed victim and, by the end of it all, you’ll be completely torn by the characters’ motivations and actions, and at odds as to who to support and whether either or neither got what they truly deserved. You won’t know which guy/girl to side with. Indeed, in true Almodovar style, the only character who feels like they unequivocally deserved their fate is a supporting player who doesn’t even realise just what they’ve gotten themselves into.
Enhanced by an eclectic, multifarious score that reaches its height with the music that they used to underscore the trailer – which plays out during a key point in the film – and shot with the director’s trademark visual panache, as usual you find yourself totally enthralled; compelled to watch the horror with your eyes glued to the screen, reeling at the sexuality that goes distinctly against the grain and, perhaps moreso than the director has ever attempted before, redefines all of your expectations. Whether you want the girl to escape, want her and the doctor to get together, or just want the characters to be free of the ties that bind them, the full extent of what you’re wishing for is far beyond what you could possibly imagine.
The Skin I Live In will likely remain a film unlike almost anything you have ever seen before – but for in the world of Almodovar. It’s a psychological horror film that, literally, gets under the skin of its characters, passing commentary on who we think we are versus who we are; and carrying weighty themes of identity, control and sexuality all wrapped up in its intricately-plotted non-linear narrative. Twisted fate and disjointed justice entwine to form the true horror before you, which plays hard at frustrating any preconceived – or, rather, premature – ideas that you might have about right and wrong.
Our Review Ethos