Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Review: The Skin I Live In

I'm not a huge appreciator of Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar. I had seen his fan-favorite films Women on the Verge of a Nervous BreakdownAll About My Mother and Volver, and disliked the jarring way they combine goofy, campy humor with gritty themes such as incest and parental abandonment.

When my brother Ray asked me if I would be interested in seeing Almodóvar's then-latest film The Skin I Live In ('La Piel Que Habito' in its native Spanish) (2011), I naturally said no. 'Yeah, I wasn't too interested at first', Ray told me, 'but check out this trailer'.

Now, your standard movie trailer is essentially a point-for-point presentation of the film's entire plot - complete with delineations of the basic conflicts and dramatic high-points using the bluntest dialogue excerpts possible - 'I'm not a smart man...but I know what love is.'You shoulda killed me when you had the chance!'

The trailer for Skin is less desperate plea for attention, and more minimal mood piece. We only see snatches of scenes - a bald woman in a pantyhose one-piece and translucent rubber mask, a petri dish containing a synthetic skin sample, a man licking a screen displaying the woman - all accompanied by a sleazy Trentemøller track.

It's like the classic trailers for AlienThe Shining and Psycho, the latter of which which simply follows Hitchcock as he rambles around the Bates Motel set and issues tantalizing clues: 'And in this house, the most dire and horrible events took place...' 

'...and what of this wretched man?'

The Psycho and Skin trailers are wriggling, juicy lures meant to hook the viewer in with the promise of macabre mystery. Just enough to reel you in, but not enough to ruin anything. If you clicked on the trailer link and were similarly intrigued, feel free to stop reading this and go watch The Skin I Live In cold.


Esteemed surgeon and scientist Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) delivers lectures on face transplants and his own genetic experiments:

'Our face identifies us. For burn victims, saving their lives is not enough. They need to have a face, even if it's from a corpse. A face with features so they can gesticulate.'

'I have given the name 'Gal' to the artificial skin I've been working on in recent years. This skin is resistant to every insect bite, which means a natural barrier to malaria, for example.'

When a fellow scientist (José Luis Gómez) suspects Ledgard of illegally experimenting on human subjects, Ledgard counters with a classic mad-scientist riposte: '...but it seems the ultimate paradox. We interfere in everything around us; meat, clothes, vegetables, fruit, everything. Why not use scientific advances to improve our species?' Ledgard is threatened with an inquiry should his experiments continue.

Meanwhile, the panythose-clad Vera (Elena Anaya) wordlessly builds sculptures and does yoga stretches to while away her time as a prisoner in Dr. Ledgard's home.

Lengthy flashbacks show us seemingly unconnected events such as a wedding party during which Ledgard's daughter Norma (Blanca Suárez) absconds with rakish lad Vicente (Jan Cornet) and shares a strange sexual encounter with him. We notice that Norma is almost a dead ringer for Vera.

What does it all mean?!

My Take

The plot of a typical kidnapping-centric film (The Silence of the LambsThe Gift, Taken, and countless other thrillers) follows the investigators trying to find the kidnap-ee. The interplay between kidnapper and victim consists of forceful threats and ear-splitting crying, and the overall tone is fast-paced and overtly scary.

Almodóvar's approach with Skin is scary in an insidious way - As Almodóvar succinctly states, his film is 'A horror story without screams or frights.' Indeed, there is no murderous rampaging, gratuitous gore, jump-scares, or other such cheap horror tropes. Instead, the menace operates on a low - but constant - simmer. Vera is clearly a fearful victim and Ledgard a controlling sociopath, but their exchanges are muted and spare. 

Take an early scene where Ledgard tests the durability of Vera's new super-skin with a small blowtorch:

(Ledgard): 'Now there won't be any more burns.'

'You said that a year ago.'

'I was hasty.'

Vera is past the point of crying and panicking, and has more-or-less accepted her position as a captive.

Vera's cell isn't a dank dungeon; it's a huge, sunlit room in Ledgard's impressive mansion. Ledgard's housekeeper Marilia (Almodóvar regular Marisa Paredes) arranges her meals neatly on a tray, complete with sanitary plastic wrap, and sends them up to the room via dumbwaiter. The whole arrangement seems eerily cushy and normal.

Furnished, room and board, free housekeeping, second-storey with a view, cable...what's the catch?

While the tension of the typical kidnapping-thriller is pretty simple: 'Will they get there in time, or will the victim die?', the tension of Skin is murkier: 'She's been here for over a year? How long is she going to be stuck there? If he's not going to kill her, what is he planning to do to her?'

The tone of Skin is not as relentlessly bleak as the premise might suggest: just after the film establishes Vera's dire situation, an interloper appears in the form of a man in a tiger outfit (Roberto Álamo). The usually forbidding Marilia softens as she recognizes her estranged son Zeca.

While Zeca is imposing and menacing, his stupidity provides Skin with an odd levity. When he demands access to Vera's room and Marilia directs him to a hidden key in a drawer, Zeca exasperatedly huffs:

'There's just an envelope that says 'clips'.'

(Marilia): 'That's to fool people, idiot.'

This reminded me of Shakespeare's proto-Gothic play Macbeth, in which a horrible murder is instantly followed by a tangential scene (Act II; scene III) which features an oblivious, comically drunken porter.

The characters of The Skin I Live In do have moments of full, intense melodrama, but most of the time the performances are subtle. Antonio Banderas in particular belies his passionate-heartthrob persona to create a truly nasty character whose anguish and rage doesn't explode, but seethes behind a glare that Kubrick would be proud of.

All work and no play...

Almodóvar is likewise restrained in his direction. He ditches his usual bright exuberance and respects the Gothic horror genre with an earnestness comparable to masters such as Guillermo del Toro and Park Chan-wook. The film is just realistic enough for its characters to feel real, and just operatic enough to also feel like a twisted nightmare.

Skin's visuals do have the saturated reds, purples and blues of Almodóvar's signature style, but they only appear as accents to the sterile whites and pale-blues of Ledgard's surgical gear and Vera's spartan room.

The camera's attention to tiny details - drops of blood on a microscope-slide, gleaming scalpels, the swelling of Vera's chest as she breathes - really conveys Ledgard's cold, painstaking perfectionism. Meanwhile, Alberto Iglesias's score of wildly arpeggiating strings sympathizes with Vera whenever Ledgard looms towards her door.


Further Reading

For more films that aren't in the English language, you can see my posts about MotherNine Queens, and Troll Hunter.

The Skin I Live In was produced by Blue Haze Entertainment, Canal+ España, El Deseo D.A. S.L.U., FilmNation Entertainment, Instituto de Crédito Oficial, Instituto de la Cinematografía y de los Artes Audiovisuales and Televisión Española. The UK DVD was distributed by Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment LLC.
© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this weblog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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