I cannot claim to be a fan of Pedro Almodóvar. The subjects of his films rarely interest me. After reading a plot synopsis of The Skin I Live In I could not resist its lure or the chance to reappraise my views of him as a director.
Doctor Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) is a super plastic surgeon who, since the death of his wife who committed suicide after being burned in a car accident, has devoted his life to developing a synthetic skin – regardless of the ethics. Which means that the mysterious Vera (Elena Anaya) who is locked away in his house and subject to his experiments is his victim… Or is she? In any case, the house keeper (Marisa Paredes) is the only other person who knows but when her no-good crook son shows up (Roberto Álamo) things spiral out of control and a disturbing tale charting how they all came to be in the house is revealed.
The film’s crazy plot is based on the 1984 novel Tarantula by crime-novelist Thierry Jonquet. I was expecting a horror film because when I first saw the distinctive poster it reminded me of the French film, Eyes Without a Face.
While the film does contain horror it also has science-fiction, crime and melodrama, all of which is mixed brilliantly through the multiple narrative strands that eventually blend together into a lurid tale.
We start in Ledgard’s home where he conducts his experiments and most of the action takes place. It is a country villa with white walls, sterile minimalist interiors, clean operating theatres and walls adorned with art that mixes Rubenesque ladies with violent modern pieces that cross Bosche and Picasso. It is also a house with surveillance and security systems focussed on keeping Vera locked inside. Everything is very mysterious, very horror inflected.
Robert Ledgard’s journey echoes so many literary classics. He is experimenting with transgenic therapy – mixing pig and human genes – despite the fact it is illegal. He is creating artificial skin that protects against mosquito’s, burns and other injuries. Is this how Doctor Moreau started? His experiment and his reaction to it mirrors Frankenstein’s.
The film then morphs into a noir with the arrival of a criminal named Zeca. The film loves to ricochet between genres whilst the melodrama threatens to explode with one outrageous plot-point after another as we uncover the secret behind Ledgard and Vera.
Almodóvar has handled films where there are multiple strands and moods and it is this skill that prevents the film from falling apart as each flash-back, back-story and twist creates a heightened atmosphere where melodrama is constantly threatening to overwhelm the increasingly lunatic proceedings and allows the events to build up a head of steam for an outrageous twist.
Key in maintaining control is steady direction showcasing amazing performances from the leads, Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya. Antonio breaks from his good-guy image and creates a dapper, emotionally twisted mad-genius, with a face that remains near blank albeit handsome. Elena is mysterious, sexy, feisty, vulnerable and brave and she handles her role with skill. This role was originally for Penelope Cruz. Give me more Elena!
A perfect accompaniment to this is the music from Alberto Igelesias, a cool jazz soundtrack that permeates the atmosphere. Okay, the characters do feel emotionally weightless but watching the events explode was so exciting. The whole thing is brilliantly rendered and an enjoyable lurid tale that has so many twists and turns.
The Skin I Live In Spa/US
Release date: September 2011
Running time: 120 mins.
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Starring: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes, Jan Comet, Roberto Álamo, Bianca Suárez, Eduardo Fernández