Wednesday, May 2, 2012

98. THE SKIN I LIVE IN (LA PIEL QUE HABITO, 2011)

I'd heard Pedro Almodóvar's latest film described as everything from an hommage to a riff to a take on Georges Franju's EYES WITHOUT A FACE (LES YEUX SANS VISAGE, 1959), which made me feel less urgent about seeing it. I knew it would be a film of execeptional quality, but I didn't feel particularly eager to see the flamboyant Almodóvar taking on the horror genre in a genuflective stance -- and I say this as someone who holds Franju's work as sacred. (I suspect some others may have felt the same way, because the film is seriously underdiscussed on the various horror boards.) Having finally caught up with THE SKIN I LIVE IN on the right rainy afternoon, I can see these descriptions for the critical laziness they are, because it is a very pure Almodóvar film indeed -- wickedly perverse, full of bizarre understated humor, yet passionate and illuminating about people in the most unexpected ways.

The problem is that it's very difficult to discuss this film without spoiling the identity of the woman in this photograph, the patient of Antonio Banderas' Dr. Robert Ledgard, who is given the amusing name of Vera Cruz and is magnificently played by Elena Anaya. Suffice to say that Dr. Ledgard (who has developed a revolutionary kind of super-skin to help treat burn victims) keeps his patient at his home clinic, under lock and key and strict security camera observation; she might be his supposedly dead wife Vera, who was badly burned in an automobile crash; she might also be his daughter Norma, who was institutionalized after she was raped in the garden at a soirée, although we see Robert having sex with her (we presume he's crazy anyway); or she might be someone else entirely. The film is based on a novel by the late Thierry Jonquet, first published as MYGALE and now known in English as TARANTULA; Almodóvar, adapting it with his brother Augustín, evidently changed the character names and the story quite a bit. Based on what I've read about the novel, it was tricky in its own narrative way, in a way a cinematic rendering could not be, so the film offers an approximate, analogous structure of the novel's triple tier structure that finds the story's forward movement halting for a significant share of its running time so that Robert, and then Vera, sleeping together, can share the same extended flashback dream. Both dreamers are privy in their sleep to cutaways to other perspectives they couldn't have possibly experienced subjectively, but it's something we must forgive the film; it may not hold water, but it holds one's attention.

Banderas shows a valuable understanding of when to underplay, the better to let his co-star shine, and he handles the medical speak at his lectures with warmth and ease. Spanish films continue to offer some of the most dimensional portraits of older women characters in our contemporary cinema, and Marisa Paredes is intriguing as Ledgard's doting housekeeper (who has a secret identity of her own - in fact, just about everyone in this film does), and Roberto Alamo lends some contrasting ferocity to the overall clinical coolth as her tiger-suited prodigal son, Zeca. Jan Cornet also contributes a significant, sensitive performance as Vicente, the son of a dressmaker who is shown making a doomed play for her lesbian apprentice and a still more doomed play for a heterosexual member of the cast. Elena Anaya, with her large eyes, delicately chiseled features and yoga-slim body, accentuated in a supportive body stocking, is not a poetically fragile character like Édith Scob in the Franju film, but something more alien, unknowable, perhaps even artificial. The ambiguity of her performance allows the film to say something important about the necessity of finding trust over love, without which the final scene could not quite summon the power that it has. 

I have special affection for films that appear, in retrospect, to have been constructed as necessary reinforcement to a powerful final scene -- something I find equally true of films as different as Rouben Mamoulian's QUEEN CHRISTINA (1935), Ingmar Bergman's THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY (1961) or Sofia Coppola's LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003) -- and I find this particularly true of THE SKIN I LIVE IN. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the closing scene of this film made me feel -- as a straight viewer -- a more direct, intimate, in-the-skin sense of the nervousness, vulnerability and need for acceptance that gay men and women must experience when they come out to their friends and family, than I've felt from any other movie. It's this potent unifying metaphor, and all it's connected to, that makes THE SKIN I LIVE IN not only a stylish and surprising thriller, but one of the horror genre's most significant gay texts.   

Viewed via DirecTV View on Demand.

1 comment:

  1. Although a lot of reviewers dismissed the film as "Almodovar does a horror flick", there's far more continuity here with his previous films than might be first apparent, tackling as it does familiar questions of gender, sexual identity and the place of women in society (but now refracted through genre cinema). To top it all, Almodovar is a brilliant storyteller. I think this is one of his strongest films in years.

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