Wednesday, 14 September 2011

The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodóvar, 2011) Review

Love lies bleeding... Antonio Banderas sculpts an image of beauty in The Skin I Live In (2011)

Given the incredible potential of the close-up, it's perhaps unsurprising that cinema has developed an obsession with faces. Ever since Kim Novak in Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958) the silver screen has been compelled by their textured form and inherent mystery. Consider George Franju's terrifying Eyes Without A Face (1960), in which Pierre Brasseur plays a desperate plastic surgeon who kidnaps young girls to transplant their faces onto his disfigured daughter (Edith Scob). Four years later and The Face Of Another (Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1964) told the story of businessman Okuyama (Tatsuya Nakadi), who takes to wearing a lifelike mask after suffering severe burns. Exploring issues of identity and infidelity, the film would later influence Alejandro Amenábar's Abre los ojos (1997), remade in 2001 as Vanilla Sky (Cameron Crowe). Somewhere within all of these stories lies the spirit of Mary Shelley, whose sensational 1818 novel 'Frankenstein' (adapted by James Whale for Universal in 1931) told the ultimate story of ill-fated creation; biology giving birth to horror. Ambition burned within Dr. Frankenstein, as it does within all men of science. Now Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar turns his hand to body (more specifically: face) horror, and his own scientist Legrad (Antonio Banderas) joins the ranks of cinema's greatest madmen. Shame then, that the film around him just isn't up to scratch...

The first twenty minutes of Almodóvar's latest - his bleakest since 1986's Matador, which opened on a scene of Troma-induced masturbation - are extraordinary, and zero in on a house of horrors that would not seem out of place in the pantheon of Hammer. Perhaps if I told you that a scarred rapist dressed as a tiger was not the oddest thing about these opening minutes you would begin to grasp the obscurity of the scenario, based upon Thierry Jonquet's 2003 novel 'Tarantula' (which, for the sake of spoilers, I would advise skipping before seeing the film). The tiger's name is Zeca (Roberto Álamo) and the object of his twisted desire is Vera (Elena Anaya), who sits, cross-legged in a state of zen-like calm, with the poised beauty of an ornate egg. He observes her on a TV screen, linked to the CCTV cameras which survey her blank room; finely decorated, but lacking identity. We don't know who she is. All we know is that she belongs (I use that word specifically) to Legrad, who is dabbling in the realm of transgenesis, specifically in the splicing of pig and human cells. It's clear that he has issues, but only through a series of flashbacks will we discover the dark roots of his scientific endeavors...

That said, it's at the point where we dissolve into Legrad's memories (flashbacks are a trite plot device) that the film loses focus, and these scenes, which take up a majority of the running time, prove significantly less interesting than the potential story ignited by Zeca's arrival. The time looping structure piles twist upon twist with ever increasing extravagance, but somehow I was able to predict the finale in less than an hour. This isn't because I'm a particularly perceptive or intelligent viewer, but because of the DNA Almodóvar's film shares with cinema of the past, including, somewhat, his own Bad Education (2002; think about the way that film conceals and subsequently reveals its characters' identities). The Skin I Live In is so specific in its design (the mise-en-scène is impeccable) that you quickly get a feel for the world these characters inhabit, and Almodóvar's blatant nodding toward other films (Cronenberg is another footnote) work much like a built-in read-aloud synopsis, constantly running about 30 minutes ahead of the main feature. He couldn't have made the twists more obvious if they were literally signposted, and they're executed with a smugness I'd never have ascribed to the director.

It's odd that I should draw comparison with Bad Education too, because that film suffers from largely the same problem. In both films I admired the craft but was left emotionally cold, and at a distance from the onscreen action. Legrad's controlled psychological complexity paired with Vera's stockholm-inflected victimization should make for an emotional rollercoaster, but their interplay never raises a pulse. It's also interesting, given the director's feminist background, that The Skin I Live In is shot from a predominantly male point of view - it's about the male gaze, male sexuality, male domination and most importantly man's obsession with power. This makes it unique in Almodóvar's filmography, but also confirms it as the weakest link. With its precise camerawork, Herrmann-esque score, vibrant colour scheme and committed performances The Skin I Live In could have been a great film. It has all the vital organs of a masterpiece, except, it would seem, a heart.

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