Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar makes a return to cinema screens this week with The Skin I Live In, a film which sees him reunite with one time “muse” Antonio Banderas.
Following an opening scene that is both playful yet wholly unnerving, Almodóvar presents to his audience his take on the age old “monster in the basement” tale. In Almodóvar’s film though, the “monster” is a specimen of beauty and is a bona-fide scientific accomplishment. Vera cannot feel pain, she can’t burn, and her visage is one of ultimate perfection. Alas, its not long before the expected “science gone awry” side-swipe of such fare kicks in. In the grand tradition of Shelley’s Frankenstein (undoubtedly this film’s greatest influence) all is not well in the mind of the “monster”, and Almodóvar’s story unravels through a carefully staged series of flashbacks and half-remembered dreams. Almodóvar turns the conventions of Science-fiction, horror movies and even soap opera and the superhero genre on their very head, with a work that questions the morality of man, whilst simultaneously reasoning with the very concept of insanity.
The story of Robert Ledgard, a brilliant doctor whose path has tainted by the death of his unfaithful wife, The Skin I Live In traces the roots of Robert’s relationship with Vera, the mysterious subject at the heart of his greatest experiment. To delve any further in to the plot of the film would be unfair on those who haven’t seen it. Needless to say, what follows is a work that riff’s on the best of Hitchcock, that melds genres and inspirations in to a unique and intense work of art.
Slightly unusually for Almodóvar, The Skin I Live In is a film ground in the androgynous. Unlike his last couple of films, which dealt mainly with female characters, here the director presents both genders in equal measure. It’s this bi-gender approach that is most reflective of the final work, with the resulting film of such a distinctive quality that its no wonder that The Skin I Live In has been lauded as a return to form for the filmmaker. Quite simply, its a masterful exercise of filmmaking, combining all of the usual conventions one would expect of the Spanish filmmaker, such as maternal ambiguity and gender issues, with a tale that ultimately verges on the populist.
This role is most certainly something of a comeback for Banderas, an actor who has struggling for anything remarkable for some time now. Having began his career in cinema with Almodóvar’s Labyrinth of Passion, its great to see the pair working together almost thirty years on, with a film as vital and refreshing as those early Almodóvar movies. In terms of the Almodóvar/Banderas oeuvre, The Skin I Live In most closely resembles 1990’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, a similarly fraught tale of obsession and sexuality.
Elana Anaya portrays the key female role. An actress with a broad resumé, Anaya has appeared in films as varied as Stephen Sommers’ Van Helsing and Jean-François Richet’s Mesrine double-bill, as well as working with Almodóvar before in Talk To Her, but this is her most formidable and central role to date. While the sheer complexities of Vera’s character arc dictate that to reveal too much would be at a disservice to the film, it’s safe to say that Anaya handles a particularly complicated character with expertise. A serious contender for female turn of the year, Anaya is quite simply fantastic.
Other Almodóvar regular Marisa Paredes of Talk To Her and All About My Mother fame also makes an appearance, in the pivotal role of Marilia, the doctor’s loyal servant. A sinister undercurrent runs through the character, with this post-millennial Igor hiding secrets of her own.
The beautiful photography, courtesy of regular Almodóvar DoP José Luis Alcaine is flawless. Alcaine shoots within a very confined space for the much of the films running time, meaning the end results are even more impressive. The score, from fellow Almodóvar regular Alberto Iglesias is an eclectic, adaptable organism, reflective of the shifting pattern that is the moving image that it accompanies. Spanish performer Buika and a wonderful cover of Elliott Smith’s Between The Bars provide alternative musical accompaniment, the lyricism of the latter especially suitable for the film it is soundtracking (in turn providing the perfect title for this article).
One of the most striking things about The Skin I Live Inis just how much the product of its author it is. Under the helm of any other filmmaker the source material could have easily fallen in to the usual trappings of the horror genre. Instead we find a work that is reminiscent of a unique filmmaker’s incredibly distictive style, as if Almodóvar has adapted the genre to fit him, as opposed to working within the genre itself. The type of oddities that one would wholly expect of the films director litter the film, from a bank robber dressed as some kind of tiger superhero through to a character who presents herself through a photo frame. Biblical references accompany the obscure, with notations towards blood (“taken from the animal while it was still alive”) and the notions of grandeur and responsibility forming the backbone of the first act of the film. As Robert “plays God” his rationale is presented in such a manner that the scientific and the religious come together. While no doubt ground in scientific reasoning, the manner in which the medial routines practised within the film are presented reminds of dogmatic ritual. Yet the doctor is also a showman. As the doctor presents his findings to his contemporaries he stands in front if a bright red curtain that would be more at home in the Moulin Rouge than an academic hall.
The Skin I Live In joins the ranks of the occasional arthouse auteur science-fiction flick, alongside works by Truffaut, Cuarón and Tarkovsky, with films such as Fahrenheit 451, Alphaville, Children Of Men and Solaris making for apt companion’s to Almodóvar’s film. That the doctor is essentially the great traditional super villain, is also appropriate, given the Summer that this film’s release punctuates. The highly intelligent yet completely insane figure, whose life has been shaped by tragedy is no different to a Magneto, or a Loki. That The Skin I Live In acts as a refresh button for the cinema itself following a summer of spectacle is also notable, with the contained, emotionally driven spectacle on display in Almodóvar’s film far more exciting than anything Hollywood has thrown in front of a camera in the last 6 weeks.
Essential, compelling cinema, The Skin I Live In is as satisfying a work as we’ve seen all Summer. Recommended is an understatement.