Thursday, November 17, 2011

La piel que habito (The Skin I Live In) Movie Review

With The Skin I Live In, director Pedro Almodóvar has crafted what might be described as an almost perfect mixture of Douglas Sirk and Alfred Hitchcock. Those two classic directors have long been big influences on Almodóvar’s films, but I don’t think he has before now drawn the two together and created such a perversion of their work – and I mean that as a compliment.

Based on a book by Thierry Jonquet, it’s equal parts gothic horror, Hitchcock thriller, and science fiction all with a little bit of soap-opera melodrama to hold it together. I also wonder if Almodóvar was drawn to the material or somewhat inspired by the first successful full face transplant which was performed in Seville, Spain, in 2010. Antonio Banderas, returning to an Almodóvar film for the first time in 20 years, plays Robert Ledgard, a highly-skilled plastic surgeon conducting research into skin replacement technology for use on burn victims, for example.

Almodóvar wastes no time at all establishing one of the film’s major themes. Ledgard lectures on his research findings, drawing on personal experience with his badly burned wife (now deceased) to say that having a face is integral to identity and finding a way to give that identity back is essential in curing burn victims even after the physical wounds have healed. Identity, relationships, roles – especially gender roles – are common themes found in Almodóvar’s work and here he brings them to full glorious life in a movie that is unflinching in its depiction of revenge and brutality.

Ledgard keeps a young woman captive in his secluded estate. His assistant Marilia (a wonderful Marisa Paredes) aids in keeping the woman and his secret, though she seems more than a little concerned at the captive’s resemblance Ledgard’s wife, who committed suicide after seeing her hideously burned visage. The woman (Elena Anaya), whom he refers to as Gal, is prepared to take her own life, apparently due to some alteration to her appearance that Ledgard has undertaken. One day during Carnival, a man dressed as a tiger shows up claiming to be Marilia’s son, Zeca (Roberto Alamo). He is allowed entrance to the house, is quickly drawn to the captive woman, and unleashes a fury of abuse and rape until Ledgard arrives home to stop it all. Here is where Marilia reveals the back story for Gal and an unsuspecting and confused audience. Then the film jumps back six years.

At the risk of revealing too much I will end the plot summary there. Pedro Almodóvar is a filmmaker whose constant striving to improve his art is up there on the screen at all times. With each passing film, he seems to mature a little bit more, delving into more serious subject matter with each outing, always finding new, more inventive and often more outrageous ways to explore the issues that trouble him as an artist. No matter how ridiculous the circumstances that his characters find themselves in, they never falter in taking it seriously. The whole thing is like some absurd and macabre house of horrors, with the various elements of science fiction and horror tenuously held together by Almodóvar’s skilled directorial hand.

As is Almodóvar’s custom, the color palette is rich and vibrant with bright reds, blues and yellows, enlivening the images to such an extent that they serve to heighten the emotional experience. The production design by Antxón Gómez and cinematography by José Luis Alcaine imbue the film with an otherworldly and somewhat dreamlike quality. The return of Banderas to the director who made him famous is a welcome addition. Ledgard is a far cry from the boyishly handsome and childish young men he played in films like Matador and Law of Desire. Suave and sophisticated, Ledgard requires an actor of Banderas’s heft and good looks, but also one who can turn on that burning intensity, a raging fire of anger that Banderas is also so good at.

Ostensibly The Skin I Live In is about the different identities we assume and the masks we put on to get us through our social interactions. In the film, these masks are often worn quite literally as when Zeca shows up at the house or when Ledgard hunts down a young man (Jan Cornet) whom he blames for the psychological destruction of his daughter. Sometimes, in the case of the captive Vera, it is a full body suit that signals the complete transition from one personality to another. No one is ever quite what they initially appear to be in an Almodóvar film as in life.

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