Monday, October 31, 2011

Movie Review: The Skin I Live In

The Skin I Live In ***
Directed by: Pedro Almodóvar.
Written by: Pedro Almodóvar based on the novel by Thierry Jonquet.
Starring: Antonio Banderas (Robert Ledgard), Elena Anaya (Vera Cruz), Marisa Paredes (Marilia), Jan Cornet (Vicente), Roberto Álamo (Zeca), Eduard Fernández (Fulgencio), Blanca Suárez (Norma Ledgard).

Pedro Almodovar is love with old movies. Watching his films brings to mind 1950s melodramas – especially those by Douglas Sirk, but with less censorship. There’s also a healthy dose of Hitchcock in his films, particularly recently, where his films have become more mysterious in nature. His latest film, The Skin I Live In, is no exception. There’s a little Sirk, a little Hitchcock, a little of Georges Franu’s Eyes Without a Face in the mix, all filtered through Almodovar’s prism of sexual identity. It is a film that you really cannot take seriously, because it goes so far over the top, but I don’t see that as necessarily a bad thing.

The film stars Antonio Banderas as Dr. Robert Ledgard, a brilliant plastic surgeon and researcher, who believes he has come up with a new way to help burn victims recover from their horrible scars. In the process, he has essentially invented a new kind of skin. He says he did all of this because his wife was horribly burned and killed in a car accident, and this was his way of dealing with it. He gives a lecture where he explains his discoveries, tested on lab mice. But we already know he hasn’t just tested it on mice. He has a real person as a guinea pig. This is Vera Cruz (Elena Anaya), the beautiful woman he keeps under lock and key at his house/clinic. This makes his maid Marilla (Marisa Paredes), who has been with him since childhood, extremely uncomfortable. When Marilla’s son Zeca (Roberto Alamo) shows up, we start to understand why.

To give away more would be criminal. But let me just say that I was convinced I knew where the movie was headed from the outset, and could not have possibly been more wrong. Almodovar, working on a novella by Thierry Jonquet, starts with what seems to be a standard revenge thriller/horror movie, but then goes deeper and deeper as it goes along. I think one of the reasons why I didn’t suspect where the movie was going is because I could not imagine even going there. It’s just so bizarre that I can’t believe someone would attempt it. And I say this with admiration.

The film, like all of Almodovar’s work, is impeccably made. I love when he does dark, and tones down his usual lush, vibrant colors, which only makes a few appearances here. Visually, this film is more akin to his Bad Education (which may just be my favorite of his films) than something as richly colorful as Volver. The cinematography, art direction and costume design are excellent, and the score by Alberto Ingelesis would have made Hitchcock’s regular composer Bernard Hermann proud.

If The Skin I Live In is less satisfying than most of his work, it’s because the story depends on its inherent shock value – which to be truly effective, needs to hit the audience like a gut punch, which it does. But what this requires is for the actors to play everything a little too close to the vest for much of the movie – not revealing too much. As a result, Antonio Banderas is actually kind of dull in this role, which is a disappointment given his other work with Almodovar. The beautiful Elena Anaya seems little more than skin deep for too much of the movie – although she makes up for it in the final reel. And we constantly think that Marilia wants to say more, but is held back by the necessities of the plot. Perhaps the best performance in the movie is by Jan Cornet as Vincente, who I can’t say much about without fear of giving too much away.

And yet, despite its flaws, I couldn’t help but thoroughly enjoy The Skin I Live In. Almodovar has pushed himself here, and although the result isn’t quite as good as much of his previous work, it still drew me in, and shocked me.

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