DIRECTOR: Pedro Almodovar.
CAST: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes, Jan Cornet, Blanca Suarez, Roberto Alamo, Eduard Fernandez, Fernando Cayo, Jose Luiz Gomez, Barbara Lennie, Susi Sanchez.
SYNOPSIS: After losing his wife in a car crash, prolific surgeon Dr. Robert Ledgard (Banderas) becomes obsessed with creating a synthetic skin that could have saved her. His quest for a burn-proof skin is helped by patient Vera (Anaya) who stays in his beautiful home along with housekeeper Marilia (Paredes).
I have to admit that I have never seen a film by Pedro Almodovar. Loosely adapted from the novel Mygale (translated into English as Tarantula) by Thierry Jonquet, The Skin I Live In is a meticulously executed and elegant labyrinth of a film that has me fascinated as to what the remainder of Almodovar’s back catalogue includes.
For a film centred around medical procedures, it does not bombard us with unnecessary medical jargon. The amount of exposure to surgery and gore is handled sensitively, with a scene involving stitches being sewn easy to watch and a moment of slow-motion bloodshed oddly poetic. Set in a beautiful semi-Gothic villa and with scenes taking place in woods and caves, it sounds like the typical horror story. However, conventional is the last thing The Skin I Live in is.
It is all too easy to forget what a talented actor Antonio Banderas is, playing a lot of Hollywood stereotype roles as of late. It is therefore a real treat to see him play in his native tongue as a very strong and charismatic leading man. There are real moments of terrifying maliciousness and anger mixed with a great deal of bravado, but Banderas’ Robert is never camp or a caricature villain like he could so easily have become. Going through his own kind of identity crisis after the death of his wife, Robert is guarded but vulnerable. By not letting us completely into his mind, the realisation of what he is doing is all the more chilling and horrific, making us constantly question the events that are unfolding before our eyes.
His leading lady Elena Anaya is also no stranger to Almodovar having previously worked on 2002’s Talk To Her. Being at the centre of such bizarre circumstances, Anaya’s performance is grounded in an incredible amount of realism. We view her watching television, hoovering her room (who ever knew that could be turned into an art form?!) and practicing yoga. A great deal is asked of her throughout the film and she makes Vera a multilayered and exceptionally tragic figure. At times a vulnerable nymph, she is undoubtedly an extremely assertive woman and where some may find the constant naked shots too much, it lends itself beautifully to the heightened adoration and fascination of the human body; Vera’s flawless skin and perfect body are ultimately viewed far more like a statue than as a self gratifying object of desire.
The support is brilliant, coming from Jan Cornet as Vincente and Marisa Paredes as Marilia who each play a vital role in Robert’s life. If Robert believes Vera’s cosmetic procedures to be a result of cutting edge medicinal use, Vincente is the flipside of this, with some of his actions whilst under the influence of pills more than a little questionable. Marilia is the rock of the Ledgard household, having looked after Robert since he was a baby and following on the tradition with his daughter Norma (Suarez). The only character that does not seem to fit and takes away from the thrilling narrative a little is that of Zela (Alamo) who we initially meet in a tiger costume having come straight from a carnival. Although elements of his story are key to the plot it feels that he could have been referred to by other characters rather than being an actual, tangible presence onscreen.
While the film’s ending is simple and understated, it is testament to Almodovar’s ability to portray absolute realism. His film’s success is in how we never know when or if the maze of interweaving stories will connect. The jumps in time from 2006 to 2012 are executed effortlessly, never feeling tedious or leaving us in doubt as to where we are in the lives of his protagonists. Haunting and utterly compelling, an underlying sense of threat is apparent from the off – Alberto Iglesias’ score has an exceptionally key role in this, his cello-rich melodies both rousing and spine tingling.
Easily comparable to a modern-day Frankenstein story, The Skin I Live In is one of the most unconventional love stories ever committed to film. A beautiful patchwork of interlinking events, the subtitles are no form of distraction due to the tone being so utterly engrossing. Akin to Robert’s operations, it is a very intricate plot (albeit it wonderfully easy to follow) that leaves no room for error. Under the control of another director this exceptional film could easily have been a disaster, struggling to find a balance between horror and a believable thriller. But Almodovar’s film strikes all the right notes, leaving you as equally disturbed as fascinated.