Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Skin I Live In ***½

Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Jan Cornet, Marisa Paredes
Roberto Álamo, Eduard Fernández, José Luis Gómez, Blanca Suárez

The Skin I Live In is a movie that demands to be seen more than once. The first time, you'll be seduced by Pedro Almodóvar's own kind of trashiness, the one reminiscent of films like Matador and Kika, that has the iconoclastic director revel in shocking his audience with usually outrageous twists and turns.
The second time, after you've received a figurative punch in the gut from the secrets in the plot, you'll be enthralled by Pedro's abilities as a maverick storyteller, by his capacity to rape our minds and make us enjoy it.
Inspired by macabre horror tales like Frankenstein, Eyes Without a Face and exploitation films, The Skin I Live In tells the strange tale of Dr. Robert Ledgard (Banderas), a handsome plastic surgeon, who became obsessed with creating a thicker human skin after his wife and daughter die.
Pedro, as usual, has no care whatsoever for symbolic subtleties and from the start we understand that Robert's intention to make "skin thicker" is a self-preservation matter: he's trying to stop others from breaking his heart again.
However this doesn't mean he's a saint, in fact he's far from it, as he runs all his experiments on Vera (Anaya), a mysterious woman he's keeping captive in his house.
Vera spends her days inside a locked room, where she practices yoga and reads while wearing a body-length suit to keep her recently implanted skin from damage. Anaya grabs on to this role ferociously and develops the moves of a trapped panther, slightly reminding us of Cat People's Simone Simon (in what might be another of Pedro's winks).
The camera seems to be in love with her sensuous movements - even more so than with her naked body which is usually shown in scenes of extreme brutality or as an art object to inspire our darkest voyeurism - and we soon learn that Vera hides some secrets too: her past connects her directly with Robert's greatest misfortune.
As is norm in all of his works, Pedro weaves a tale that combines melodrama and tragedy with dark humor and deep sexual insight, as well as flashbacks and meticulous recreations of previous events. Marisa Paredes is brilliant as Robert's maid who, you guessed it, harbors some secrets of her own as well, and Jan Cornet brings just the right amount of sleaze to a character that eventually becomes the movie's moral centerpiece.
Once again we meet characters that go beyond the notions of heroes and villains and while Pedro has never been particularly known for his realism, he never fully goes for archetypes either. He's a master at creating characters whose humanity thrives despite their caricaturesque features.
Therefore we see a Robert who on the surface could very well be Dr. Delambre, from Kurt Neumann's The Fly, but in the end reaches the tragic crescendo of a film noir antihero who has been inspired by a Shakespearean drama. Banderas - who has never been a particularly gifted actor - brings to the table what might be his best quality: his ridiculous good looks.
By making Robert someone with weathered beauty, we understand that we shouldn't judge him for his current actions, for he once was like the rest of us. That is perhaps the central theme in the film: the situations that lead ordinary people to become monstrous.

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