Mark Reviews Movies

The Skin I Live In


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Pedro Almodóvar

Cast: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes, Blanca Suárez, Jan Cornet, Roberto Álamo

MPAA Rating: R (for disturbing violent content including sexual assault, strong sexuality, graphic nudity, drug use and language)

Running Time: 1:57

Release Date: 10/14/11 (limited); 10/21/11 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 20, 2011

The Skin I Live In (La Piel Que Habito) is a pulpy revenge story about science run amok, but the real inspiration is in the film's structure. It peels back layer after layer of sickness within its protagonist until even the narrative itself is no longer able to stomach having him as the central figure. He starts off seeming so noble, too.

He is Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas, very strong in an intimidating and intellectually frosty role), a plastic surgeon developing an artificial skin that can be grafted on to burn victims. His own wife—since deceased—suffered terrible burns to her entire body after a fiery car crash, and after failing to do what he believes was necessary to give her salvation from the torment of a pained existence and save her life, he has worked on three of the nine facial-transplant surgeries around the world—the most fulfilling work of his life, he tells a packed crowd. Now, he has devised a new tool for the recovery of burn victims: that artificial skin, which is resistant to burns. Robert has named it "Gal," after his late wife.

The audience loves it, but there are issues of scientific ethics at play, namely that he uses the controversial process of transgenesis. The suspicion from the powers-that-be is that he is also using a human test subject for his work.

Set in the very near future of 2012, the film only cares about the science behind Robert's miracle invention to give us our first hint that something might be amiss with his work. The second is the introduction of Vera (Elena Anaya), Robert's patient. She is, in fact, his prisoner, locked in a room of the doctor's palatial estate on the outskirts of Toledo. Robert supplies her with opium, essentially attempting to hold her mind prisoner as well. She wears a skintight suit and decorates models of the human form with various cloth, an artistic diversion that mimics Robert's own work on her. A single wall is filled with her random drawings and writings, suggesting a lengthy stay in solitude. The head servant of the house Marilia (Marisa Paredes) is at Vera's beck and call, sending up meals in a dumbwaiter and answering the intercom (next to surveillance monitors that watch Vera day and night) for whatever materials she might need.

Marilia knows more about Robert than he appears to know about himself. She's particularly unnerved by the likeness of Vera to Robert's dead wife—a look he himself chose for her. When he sits in the room next door to Vera's, he watches her lie on her bed in the nude on an almost life-sized television screen, admiring the curves of her body. Something is not right with this scenario and especially with this man.

The story comes from a short novel by Thierry Jonquet entitled Tarantula, which suggests the predatory nature of so many of the relationships presented here (The film's title, by comparison, calls to mind a fatalistic equivalent of the old maxim "When in Rome" in terms of identity), and writer/director Pedro Almodóvar maintains an oppressive sense of foreboding from the start with the sterile ambiance of Robert's modern home and the juxtaposition of his state-of-the-art laboratory surrounded by a dank, bricked-in basement. Into this isolated world, manifestations of the past enter, never to leave unscathed; memories remain ensnared within the minds of the inhabitants, determining the actions that must be taken.

The turning point for the stalemate within the house comes with the arrival of Marilia's son Zeca (Roberto Álamo), a wanted thief looking for sanctuary from the law. Seen from a distance, the film contains multiple absurd concepts as metaphor, starting with Zeca's appearance in a tiger costume (yet another predator), though, in the moment, the film establishes its own logic, starting with the rationale that Zeca is in disguise to blend in with Carnival festivities. When he spots Vera on the screen in the kitchen, he is shocked to see someone who is also from his own past. He gains access to her room and rapes her (A question comes to mind to consider in relation to the later revelations: Since his attitude toward Vera changes afterward, does Robert see this violence toward her as some warped form of justice?). In the aftermath, the secrets come tumbling down upon those remaining in the house, and Marilia unintentionally gives Vera leverage against her captor with information about Robert's family.

Almodóvar uses an interlude of dual dreams centered on the same party six years prior to reveal all. Two new characters come into play: Robert's daughter Norma (Blanca Suárez) and the employee of a local dress shop named Vincente (Jan Cornet), who eventually takes over Robert in the role of protagonist. Once again, there is violence, and once again, there is grief for Robert. Personal histories continue to repeat themselves (Zeca sees his chance rendezvous with Vera (or Gal in his eyes) as a resumption after a hiatus, Norma's ultimate fate mirrors her mother's, and Robert's attempts to overpower circumstances outside of his control blow up in his face—revenge upon revenge), and, no matter how much these characters expect them to, the outcome never differs.

The results are truly bizarre, and Almodóvar portrays the horror of the ensuing disclosures in as subdued a way as possible (the matter-of-fact utterance of a one-word surgical procedure is as restrained as keeping Robert's motives unspoken but strongly suggested). The Skin I Live In is genuinely unsettling in its exploration of psychosexual projection.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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