Pras on World Films: THE SKIN I LIVE IN (“La piel que habito”)

The Skin I Live In  The morality of the mad-scientist tale has remained more or less fixed since the beginning of sound cinema: From Dr. Frankenstein’s hubristic claim to “know what it feels like to be God,” to Jurassic Park‘s criticism of “scientists [who] were so preoccupied with whether they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should,” these are generally stories about scientific innovators who are essentially good men–or were until they got so carried away with their own powers of creation that they lost sight of their innovation’s implications and suffered the consequences. The main narrative strand of Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In hews to that template but to unusual ends.

Elena Anaya and Antonio Banderas in "The Skin I Live In"

Ever since a fiery car crash claimed his wife’s beauty and ultimately her life, brilliant plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) has been obsessed with creating an artificial skin that would have kept her alive. Twelve years of top secret tests later, he’s finally achieved his goal. He couldn’t have done it without the help of dedicated housekeeper Marilia (Marisa Paredes) and mysterious human guinea pig Vera (Elena Anaya), but should he have done it at all?

At his stylish villa, where he lives with his loyal housekeeper, Marilia (Marisa Paredes), and locked in a room at the top, being observed from elsewhere on screens, is a beautiful young woman, Vera (Elena Anaya), who we first meet dressed up to her neck in a tight, flesh-coloured body suit Vera’s strange presence is both compelling and alienating, and she’s a mystery that the film takes its full length to solve. We learn that Robert’s wife was disfigured in a car crash several years earlier and killed herself, and that he lost a daughter, Norma (Blanca Suárez), too. A flashback to six years earlier reveals what happened to Norma and begins to explain why Vera is now a prisoner in Robert’s home…

A post-modern homage to Hitchcock that raises the Master of Suspense’s implicit sexual obsessions to the textual level, its moral compass is totally, thrillingly whacked, as Almodóvar dispenses with traditional notions of good versus evil, perpetrators and victims. It’s a horror story with constantly shifting subjectivity. The film is most exciting at its most disorienting, mired in a dreamlike state of confusion that Almodóvar produces masterfully but does not let last too long. It turns out that one of the director’s first shots, a pan across a Louise Bourgeois coffee-table book, offers both a key to the movie’s themes―the Bourgeoisian territory of father-daughter relationships, sexuality as vulnerability, the body as a construction, and the multiple connotations of “cells”–and an introduction to its habit of short-circuiting the viewer’s imagination by literally putting explanatory texts center screen.The film’s opening sequence—of its protagonist, Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio  Banderas), at work in his laboratory on a substitute for skin (his wife was  burned to an unrecognizable slurry)—features sleek, stylized images of a sort  that’s quite new to Almodóvar.

Based on Thierry Jonquet’s novel Tarantula, Almodóvar’s 18th feature stars Antonio Banderas as Robert Ledgard, a plastic surgeon who develops a revolutionary new human skin that ultimately plays a role in the doctor’s diabolical plot to avenge the deaths of his wife and daughter. The link between Dr. Ledgard’s invention and that payback is Vera (Elena Anaya), a beautiful patient whom the doctor keeps in a two-way-mirror-equipped room in the palatial home he shares with his longtime maid (Marisa Paredes). With a lurid and initially disorienting story involving a crazed scientist, vulnerable victim and multiple acts of violence, “The Skin I Live In” could’ve been fertile material for any number of horror or sci-fi masters. But Almodóvar administers his patented brand of sublime craftsmanship and finely tuned melodrama, slowly uncovering the profound soul to this chilling tale that could have been lost in the hands of a less compassionate sensationalist.

Almodóvar is never shy to cite his cinematic references and says he deliberately matched the film’s establishing shot of Toledo, Spain to a shot in Luis Buñuel’s “Tristana” as a tribute to the influential surrealist.

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