The Skin I Live In April 23, 2015
There is a scene in 1943’s Old Acquaintance during which Bette Davis flies into a melodramatic rage. This rage, however, is different from all the other Oscar-baiting ones. She doesn’t act like Alexis Carrington or some other miserable cat who has a way with venomous words. She instead uses every ounce of her conserved up hatred to grab the villain of the film (Miriam Hopkins) by the shoulders and shake her like she’s a ketchup bottle with just a few droplets left to spare. Hardly subtle; lip-smackingly entertaining. We absorb it.
In an Almodóvar film, a moment like this is almost a given, in the most ironic subversion, that is. He enjoys Sirk, Hitchcock, and their cohorts, dramatizing their Technicolor guises and steroiding their hammy, soap operatic storylines. His movies sometimes go down dark paths, but they frequently drive 120 miles per hour through sickeningly funny ones too. No matter the brassy façade, though, they are always deliriously enjoyable, slightly bonkers but whip smart, completely deliberate in their actions and definitely aware of how they’re coming across. His best (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, All About My Mother) are masterpieces of gaudy style and sexual energy; his worst still contain gaudy style and sexual energy, but the results aren’t quite so good at being, I don’t know, enjoyable.
The Skin I Live In is neither his best nor his worst. Undoubtedly, though, it is his most grotesque. Whereas his past projects have included differing shades of erotic obsession and a wandering eye for the human body, The Skin I Live In combines the two with turbulence.
Camp is to be found, and so is dark humor, but new to Almodóvar is a sheer repulsiveness which is, unwanted most of the time. It also has a story that pushes the boundaries of the absurd (and for Almodóvar that's saying something), and it doesn't work as well here as it has in the past. However many issues the film has, though, it is still an aberrant thriller of merciless style; it works, warts, sex changes, face transplants and all.
At the center of The Skin I Live In is Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), a brooding scientist obsessed with creating indestructible skin in the wake of his wife's fiery death. In an Eyes Without a Face-style twist, he is not testing on various young women but rather one, a beauty whom he calls Vera (Elena Anaya). Vera is kept locked in a wide-open room, wearing a flesh-colored body suit at all times, given food through a dumbwaiter. She is a guinea pig, albeit a well-treated one, for Robert's tests.
Also dwelling in this house of horrors is Marilia (Marisa Parades), his faithful servant who may have a few secrets of her own. But right when we begin to think that we have a grip on the relationship between these people, Almodóvar backhands some sense into us.
Fans will be pleased to find Almodóvar trading his usual reds and oranges for a more blued palette; newcomers will be stunned by the jarring cinematography and the overripe plot. It’s certainly grotesque. But at least it’s masterfully so. B