“The Skin I Live In” (2011)
Pedro Almodovar is not one to do things by halves. Few prisoners are taken in the Spanish film-maker’s work. The rules of taste, genre and linear storytelling are forever being broken as the great auteur pursues his grand, universal themes.
While The Skin I Live In is unlikely to be remembered as amongst Almodovar’s best there’s no shortage of directorial courage or cunning. Eschewing his usual melodramatic mode, Almodovar makes his first out and out horror movie. There are shades of the French classic Eyes Without a Face in a tale of a doctor so overcome with grief at the loss of his wife and child that he extracts terrible revenge upon an individual he imagines responsible.
For those up to the creepy challenge there is much to admire. Tonally it feels like one of David Cronenberg’s early features. This is Almodovar’s answer to Dead Ringers, an icy cold exploration of the ethics and practice of medical science in the age of genetic modification. The director is ever keen to examine the difference between surface realities and inner truths, particularly as it pertains to gender, identity and sexuality. If a man loses that which defines him physically as such, does he still remain a man?
Almodovar fans expecting his usual array of off-beat but sympathetic characters will be disappointed. Likable or even dramatically rounded people are thin on the ground in a story that involves infidelity, bank robbery, rape and murder. Even the maternal figures, often the dramatic centre pieces of the Spaniard’s narratives, are compromised and slighted, so much so that a climatic scene of reunion between mother and son fails to engender much emotion.
When Almodovar is at the top of his game his transitions between time periods flow seamlessly, one subplot informing another. The Skin I Live In is overly reliant on titles to guide the audience through its convoluted machinations and is at times even a little repetitive. Some of the later revelations also lack the element of surprise that you expect of the director. Almodovar tips his hand too early and the concluding third of the film feels perfunctory and by the numbers.
On the plus side the cast and performances are first rate. Antonio Banderas is a vastly superior actor in his native tongue than in English and makes for a twitchy mad scientist. Elena Anaya is astonishingly beautiful as the man’s creation, a doll faced object of desire with a hidden agenda of her own.
The best way to take The Skin I Live In is as the blackest of comedies, one that takes on contemporary issues without quarter ceded to tender sensibilities or political correctness. It’s in no way credible or realistic but no Almodovar film ever is. What it really lacks is a heart and the director’s usual acceptance of human weakness.
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