Thursday, 7 March 2013

“A horror story without screams or frights,” - Almodovar's The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito)

The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito)

Pedro Almodovar was robbed! 

Whether you love or hate Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life, his visually beautiful, slow-as-treacle rumination on life, the Universe and everything, you can’t help but think it was lucky to win the coveted Palmes d’Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival when it was up against Almodovar’s deliriously transgressive psychosexual thriller The Skin I Live In

Suave, dapper, driven plastic surgeon and mad scientist Robert (Antonio Banderas) has developed an artificial skin, impervious to burning, which he tests on beautiful human guinea pig Vera (Elena Anaya) whom he keeps imprisoned in a room at his country estate, obsessively watching her on CCTV and keeping her docile with opium.  Alone and isolated, Vera’s days are spent doing yoga, reading and occasionally attempting suicide, her only human contact with Robert and his fearsome housekeeper Marilia (Almodovar regular Marisa Paredes), who serves her meals by dumbwaiter and regularly urges Robert to get rid of Vera.  When Zeca (Roberto Alamo), Marilia’s criminal son who’s on the run from the cops, turns up at the estate and tries to rape Vera, whom he recognises as his ex-lover and Robert’s supposedly dead wife (though she has no memory of him), he sets in motion a violent chain of events as flashbacks involving a party at which Robert’s mentally fragile daughter was sexually assaulted (leading to her suicide) reveal just how Vera came to be Robert’s magnificent obsession…

Described by Almodovar as “a horror story without screams or frights,” it was almost inevitable that Pedro Almodovar would eventually get around to making a body-horror movie that flirts with torture porn.  What’s surprising is just how restrained and classy an affair it is.  Long seen as the enfant terrible of Spanish Cinema, Almodovar’s films over the last decade have shown a maturity and restraint absent from the joyous insanity of early films like MatadorTie Me Up, Tie Me Down! and Labyrinth Of Passion but, while its possibly his most technically accomplished, lushly beautiful film, thematically and spiritually, The Skin I Live In is closer to them than his more recent arthouse-friendly melodramas like Volver and Broken Embraces

A loose adaptation of French author Thierry Jonquet’s novella Tarantula (Mygale) and baring a passing resemblance to Matt Eskandari and Michael A. Pierce’s nasty, brutish little 2010 VictimThe Skin I Live In shies away from the graphic violence of the torture-porn genre, mercifully fading to black during the surgery scenes in Robert’s basement/operating theatre, and is all the creepier for it.  While the plot echoes the perverse psychology of Hitchcock’s Vertigo and the imagery draws upon Cronenberg and Georges Franju’s Eyes Without A Face (no, not the Billy Idol song), the queasy erotic charge and fluid sexuality of the film are all Almodovar as he works through his familiar themes of fantasy, betrayal, desire and identity, producing a work that’s both haunting and meditative, the protagonists both redeemed and damned by the suffering they endure and inflict upon each other.

Reunited with Almodovar for the first time in two decades, Banderas is silkily seductive as the quietly insane modern-day Frankenstein, cruel, controlling, obsessed with revenge but in love with the beautiful monster he’s created while Anaya is wonderful as the enigmatic mystery that is Vera, by turns a lithe caged tigress or a blank slate onto which both Banderas and the audience project their fantasies.

To say too much more about the film runs the risk of ruining the mystery that lies at its heart but it's easily Almodovar’s best film since Bad Education and possibly his most playful and wilfully transgressive since his last outing with Banderas 1990’s Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down!. Dark, disturbing, passionate fun, The Skin I Live In is a twisted delight.

David Watson

Pedro Almodovar
Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes, Jan Cornet, Roberto Alamo, Blanca Suarez
Pedro Almodovar
Running time

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