The Skin I Live In: cutting an elegant figure

Anyone familiar with Pedro Almodóvar’s work will probably not be too surprised at the following adjectives that are applicable to his new film The Skin I Live In: lurid, operatic, lush and gender-bending. But even if he’s ploughing a familiar furrow thematically speaking this one’s still worth a look even if you’re up to here with vexed mother-son relationships, transsexuals, retina-searingly vivid costumes and bondage, as he sure knows how to tell an original story you’ll have a hard time second guessing with undeniable panache.

This one’s basically a classy and elegant horror film, I guess, as opposed to a comedy or melodrama, and the main point of reference is probably Georges Franju’s haunting 1950s shocker Eyes Without A Face, which like Almodóvar’s movie features a brilliant but obsessed plastic surgeon who appears to be conducting experiments involving human skin tissue in the seclusion of his opulent and isolated villa. The Skin I Live In is far from a remake, however: in contrast to Franju’s pared-down narrative, this film has a slew of baroque (and sometimes distracting) sub-plots involving colourful minor characters and has a complex structure, with many jumps back and forth along its time-line. This has the effect of keeping the viewer slightly bewildered as to what the relationships between the characters are until about halfway through, at which point the surgeon’s motivations and deeper intents become clear and the film seems to settle and really start to grip. It would be seriously unsporting of me to give away specific plot details, as Almodóvar has taken a lot of trouble to make sure that information is revealed in a particular sequence and by particular means, but it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that the experiments portrayed in the film wouldn’t exactly get the approval of the medical establishment.

Even if the story-telling is slightly on the fiddly side, the film always holds one’s attention by virtue of the confident direction, the beautiful production design, the stylish photography and lighting, and some top drawer performances, particularly from a glowering Antonio Banderas as Ledgard the surgeon and the astonishingly beautiful and clear-skinned Elena Anaya as his mysterious private patient Vera. The script is also highly accomplished – on more than one occasion there are some unexpectedly funny lines of dialogue to be heard during otherwise tense or sober scenes that heighten rather than diffuse the mood. Only the ending seems slightly perfunctory, as though the writer couldn’t quite call up a traditional climax or denouement, but the film doesn’t really suffer. Almodóvar remains one of a kind, and The Skin I Live In is as surprising and affecting as anything I’ve seen by him.

PS: I should add that the medical procedures in the film are depicted tastefully, and there’s nothing very graphic in the way of body horror. I’m horribly squeamish, so if I could cope with it I’m sure you’ll be fine.

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4 responses to “The Skin I Live In: cutting an elegant figure

  1. Hi Ben,
    I think your review is in perfect style
    With ‘let me praise the film I think deserves so’;I like that, but a film of this kind leaves me the atrocious doubt of wether Almodovar’s latest is a sucess or a failure. Is that emotional coldness the film creates an Almodovorian plan or is it denouncing the director’s inability to work out and thus convey a clear message? There is such an unusual mix of clinical and emotional in this fils that has blurred my judgement of it.can we manage to verbalize more about it or can’t we manage to go beyond the seamingly seemless appearances? And why so, whatever the answer?

  2. Thanks Loreta

    I think that for me what makes this a much more interesting film than, for example, Volver (a melodramatic comedy that’s fun while it lasts but doesn’t stay with you) is precisely that weird coldness you talk about, combined with the queasy feeling you get that Almodovar doesn’t necessarily entirely disapprove of the horrible things he gets his characters to do. I’d rate this as a definite success, if only because the director succeeded in convincing me that Banderas’s character was capable of planning and carrying out the unspeakable acts he commits.

  3. I agree with Loretta about the film being cold and clinical but I think this reflects Banderas’ character and makes the film chilling as good horror films should be. The disjointed nature of the first third of the film made me wonder where the story was heading, however, in hindsight I see that this was intentional in order to mislead or distract the viewer from the obvious reveal. The stylish and colourful photography is impressive but contradicts the subject matter. This, in turn, confuses the viewer’s perception of the film and makes the full horror of what happens even more disturbing.

    I have not been so utterly surprised and shocked by story for a long time (maybe since watching the 2005 remake of War of The Worlds, the Back To Reality Red Dwarf episode or Titus Andronicus although the subject matter here is completely different) and I think anyone who can create such a reaction should receive plaudits. I would like to see the film again now with people who are watching it for the first time just to see their faces when they realise what’s going on.

  4. I thought it was quite upbeat!

    He never really joined up the two storylines though: the boy and the woman.

    What was THAT all about?

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