Skin I Live In, The: Almodovar’s Erotic Horror (Creepy) Thriller

The gloom and doom of “Broken Embraces” goes further in “The Skin I Live In,” Almodovar’s creepiest film to date.  World-premiering at the 2011 Cannes Film Fthe_skin_i_live_in_5_almodovarestival, it played at the Toronto Film Fest, and served as the center piece of the New York Film Festival, before opening theatrically by Sony Classics in October 2011 to mostly positive response.

Asked about the artistic influences on his medical horror-thriller, Almodovar mentioned Buñuel, Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, the Hammer horror films, the psychedelic and kitsch style of the cult Italian director Dario Argento, and the lyricism of Georges Franju, specifically Franju’s best-known film, “Eyes Without a Face.”  This multiplicity of inspirations might be one of the problems of “The Skin I Live In,” a feature that tries to do too much thematically, and then is too eager to present a “neat” closure.

Despite my concerns with the narrative and its ideological foundations, “The Skin I Live In” boasts stylish elegance, rigorous mise-en-scene, and ultra-polished production values that are striking even by the director’s usual high standards.  Almodovar’s narrative is even harsher and grimmer than “Bad Education.”  “The Skin I Live In” is the director’s first genuine tragedy, a horror drama devoid of humor or light notes. The film takes the Frakenstein-like fable to its most terrifying extremes, justifying for the first time the label of cinema of cruelty.  More specifically, it borrows the bondage and captivity from “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down,” the brutal rape (in fact dual rape) from several films, the car accident in which a loved one (here a wife) is injured or killed from “Broken Embraces.”

the_skin_i_live_in_2_almodovarAlmodovar has lamented the “loss” of Antonio Banderas to Hollywood (and star-wife Melanie Griffith), claiming “I can no longer afford him. “  Reteaming with Banderas for the first time in two decades, “The Skin I live In” is a welcome collaboration for both filmmaker and actor.  Banderas’ cool image and effortless sex appeal were evident in “Matador,“ “Women on the Verge of Nervous Breakdown,” as well as Robert Rodriguez’s “Desperado,” in 1995.  But that was two decades ago, after which he has experienced a dwindling career.  One could hardly come up with three or four decent Hollywood movies—the “Zorro” films included—that Banderas has made in the U.S.  Ironically, Banderas was cast for his overt sex appeal as Tom Hanks’ lover in the AIDS drama, ”Philadelphia,” but the director (Jonathan Demme) and writer (Ron Nyswan) lacked the courage to show the couple in intimate scenes, not even kissing.

the_skin_i_live_in_8_almodovarWell cast in “The Skin I Live In,” Banderas plays Dr. Robert Ledgard, a famous plastic surgeon and widower whose wife was burned in a car crash, whose specific circumstances are later revealed.  The accident left his wife nearly dead, burnt with deep wounds, and placed under her husband’s loving care.  It also left Ledgard the responsibility of raising by himself a young over-sensitive daughter.  In flashbacks, it is later disclosed that the adulterous wife was running away with the wild son of Marilia, the loyal housekeeper, when they got into the accident.

 

Ever since that tragic event, Ledgard had been trying to create a new skin, the kind of which he believes could have saved his wife.  It has taken extraordinary time, energy, and money to develop in his laboratory a “miracle,” multi-functional skin that’s sensitive to caresses but also serves as shield against aggression, both external and internal.  Ledgard’s work, which has relied on thorough studies, risky experiments, and ambitious personality, lacks any scruples and morals—his obsessive goal justifies all means. To fulfill his aim, Robert has relied on one accomplice, Marilia (Marisa Paredes), the loyal housekeeper who has looked after him from the day he was born.  The two reside in a huge splendid estate, named El Cigarral, portrayed as a prison in the midst of Nature, an isolated, inaccessible place.

The early images are crucial in establishing the film’s particular locale and mood, showing a mansion surrounded by trees, an idyllic place protected by stone walls and high barred gates. Through one of the barred windows, a female—later revealed as Vera—is in motion.  Almodovar’s piercing camera tracks Vera, who is presumably naked as she is doing her yoga exercises.  However, it turns out that she’s wearing a flesh colored stockings that cling to her like a second skin (pun intended).  In the kitchen, Marilia prepares Vera’s breakfast, which she sends up in a dumb waiter that opens directly onto the Vera’s room. Vera is the captive woman and Marilia is her jailer, supervising each and every move via TV screens all over the house.

the_skin_i_live_in_3_almodovarVera now serves as a guinea pig for the doctor.  In a previous life, Vera was a handsome boy who had seduced and then brutally raped Ledgard’s only daughter, in her first outing to a wedding party with her father.  The girl is troubled by the suicide of her mother, who had jumped out of the window upon seeing a reflection of her ravaged face in the window.  In one second, during which the otherwise ultra-protective father is not watching, she is approached by a charming young guy.  It’s clear that it’s the first time the shy girl has been courted.  This is depicted in a magnificently-shot nocturnal scene in a fable-like forest, lending the film the aura of a fairy tale, populated by male wolves and young innocent virgins. Tracing his daughter’s whereabouts, Ledgard retrieves one of her purple shoes whose heel is broken and her purple scarf, before finding the girl comatose by a tree.

He recalls seeing a guy fleeing the scene on a motorcycle.  Seeking revenge, Ledgard captures the rapist, starves and tortures him for days like a dog, and then forces upon him a sex-change operation, renaming him Vera.  The scene in which the boy realizes that he is a girl now is horrifying to him and to us.  Trough flashback, we learn that the boy worked in a women’s clothing store owned by his stern and domineering mother.   A peculiar boy, he is both a Mama’s Boy and a bigtted womanizer, unable to accept the fact that his attractive co-worker is a lesbian, when she rejects his persistent advances.

the_skin_i_live_in_1_almodovarIn six years of enforced reclusion, Vera has lost her own skin—literally–but she hasn’t lost her identity entirely.  She’s tougher than her appearance suggests:  A survivor, she has decided to learn how to live within her skin, even if it is imposed by others. Once she accepts her new skin, Vera instructs herself in endurance and patience—learning how to wait.  But wait for what? The dramatic turning point occurs during a carnival, when a tattooed man in a tight tiger costume that accentuates his crotch forces Marilia to open the gates.  He is Marilia’ birth son, and unbeknownst to Ledgard, his step brother.  Marilia has always preferred Ledgard, treating the other son as a mad man.  Blaming his mother for what he has become, he ties her up to a chair and gags her in a scene that recalls “Kika,” where Rossy de Palma’s maid is tied and gaged in the kitchen by her own brother.

Retrieving the key into the sealed room where Vera is held captive, he brutally rapes her.  Arriving just at the nick of time, Ledgard shoots and kills the leopard man (his stepbrother).  Vera, bleeding and severely injured, begins yet another healing process.  She proves resilient and indestructible, later surviving her own suicide, when she slit her throat after a failed attempt to run away from Ledgard.

the_skin_i_live_in_4_almodovarToo hermetic and inward-looking, “The Skin I Live In” also suffers from a forced closure, though it’s decidedly not a happy one.  Vera is wearing the same dress that he wanted his female co-worker to try, and the latter suggested jokingly, “Why don’t YOU try it on?  The joke has become a reality.  Showing up at his mother’s store where he used to work as a man, he identifies himself to his peer and to his mama.  The last, ironic shot depicts a newly-formed family unit, now composed of three females, including Vera, whom Almodovar places at the center, flanked by the two other women.

 

In “The Skin I Live In,” Ledgard is a modern-day Frankenstein, sending postmodern chills through our bones as he’s seen walking through his huge, meticulously decorated estate, as if it were composed of halls of mirrors. Visually, the film is gleaming with seductive images, but they are mostly surface.  The film’s more serious issues–to what extent human beings feel comfortable in their own skin, and how that feeling relates to their identity–are presented in provocative and shocking ways.  I would like to report the reaction of a close female friend, who pointed out that for her the movie is fascinating, because it portrays in graphic detail the pain involved in penetration.  There are three scenes, in which the doctor tries to penetrate into Vera’s (reconstructed) vagina, but has to stop because she cannot tolerate the pain.  This makes Vera’s rape by the leopard man all the more horrific, teaching her a lesson of what it means to rape a young girl (Ledgard’s daughter).

Almodovar shows masterful skill over the technical aspects of the production.  Over the years, he has turned from a jokester to a stylist, from the maker of joyous satires to the director of shrill and polished melodramas.  It’s impossible not to admire the slow pans along the decorated walls and the carpeted floors, the gates/curtains to introduce new chapters and characters, the subtle and seamless dissolves, the elegant tracking shots, the smooth cuts.  But Almodovar’s early trademark of vivid spontaneity and joy is sacrificed for a calculated revenge tale.

the_skin_i_live_in_2_almodovarOf Almodovar’s nineteen films, “Broken Embraces” and “The Skin I Live In” stand out in their distanced approach and lack of empathy for most of the characters, be they male or female. “Broken Embraces” is a manipulatively constructed puzzle that relies on a film-within-film to supply answers to its issues in order to make sense of the convoluted narrative.   In “The Skin I Live In,” the grimmest of the director’s films, five of the tale’s six characters die, in one way or another, and the only survivor is Vera, a former young man forced to become a woman!