Skin I Live In, The: Almodovar’s Creepiest Film, Starring Antonio Banders

The gloom and doom of “Broken Embraces” also prevails in “The Skin I Live In,” arguably Almodovar’s creepiest film to date.  World-premiering at the 2011 Cannes Film Fest, the film 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 “The Skin I Live In,” 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 is also too eager to present a “neat” closure, a recurrent problem in the director’s work.

 Despite concerns with the narrative and its ideological foundation, it should be pointed out that “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. 

 Though recycling ideas and motifs from previous features, Almodovar’s narrative is even harsher and grimmer than “Bad Education.”  Taken seriously, “The

Skin I Live In” is the director’s first genuine tragedy, a scary drama devoid of any humor or light notes. The film takes the Frankenstein-like fable to its most horrific extremes, justifying for the first time the label of theater and cinema of cruelty.

 

Though marked by an ultra-busy plot, “The Skin I Live In” is not particularly complex.  Recycling ideas of Almodovar’s former films, 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 killed from “Broken Embraces.”

Almodovar has lamented the “loss” of Antonio Banderas to Hollywood (and star-wife Melanie Griffith), claiming that he can no longer “afford” the star.   Thus, 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’s 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.  What a waste of talent in what became 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 over sex appeal and good looks as Tom Hanks’ lover in the AIDS drama, ”Philadelphia,” but the director and writer lacked the courage to show the two of them in intimate scene, not even kissing.

Extremely well cast in “The Skin I Live In,” Banderas plays Dr. Robert Ledgard, a famous plastic surgeon and a widower whose wife was burned in a car crash, whose specific circumstances are revealed much later.  The accident left his wife nearly dead, totally burnt with deep wounds, 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 had run away with the wild son of Marilia, the loyal housekeeper, when they got into the accident. 

Ever since that tragic event, Ledgard had been interested in creating a new skin, the kind of which, he believes, could have saved his wife.  It has taken extraordinary time, lots of energy and money for Ledgard to develop in his laboratory a “miracle,” a multi-functional skin that’s sensitive to caresses and 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 an 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 film’s first images are crucial in establishing its 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 seems 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 an early sequence, set in the kitchen, Marilia prepares Vera’s breakfast, which she then sends up in a dumb waiter that opens directly onto the Vera’s room. Vera is the captive woman and Marilia is her jailer, supervises each and every move via a TV screen in the kitchen.

Vera, the film’s initially enigmatic protagonist, turns out to be a guinea pig, a handsome boy who had seduced and then brutally raped Ledgard’s only daughter, in her first outing to a wedding party with her ultra-protective father.  The girl is troubled by her mother’s suicide, who had jumped out of the window upon seeing a reflection of her ravaged face in the window.  Yet in one second in which he is not watched by her father, she is approached by a charming young guy, and it’s clear that it’s the first time she’s been courted.

 This is depicted in a magnificently-shot nocturnal scene set in a fable-like forest, lending the film the aura of a fairy tale, populated by male wolves and innocent, virginal girls. Tracing his daughter’s whereabouts, Ledgard retrieves one of her purple shoe, whose heel is broken, and then her purple scarf before finding the girl comatose lying by a tree.  He recalls seeing a guy fleeting the scene on a motorcycle 

Seeking revenge, Ledgard captures the rapist, starves and tortures him for days like a dog.  He then forces upon him a sex-change operation and renames him Vera.  The scene in which the boy realizes that he is a girl now is horrifying to him and to us.

We learn that the boy works in a women’s clothing store owned by his stern and domineering mother.  He is a womanizer, but in many ways, he is still a Mama’s Boy.  He cannot accept the fact that his attractive co-worker is a lesbian who rejects him.

In her six years of enforced reclusion, Vera has lost her own skin—literally–but she hasn’t lost her identity entirely.  She’s also tougher than what is assumed from her appearance.  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?

First dramatic turning point occurs during the Carnival, when a tattooed man in a tight tiger costume that accentuates his crotch forces Marilia to open the gates. Not surprisingly, he turns out to be Marilia’ birth but unwanted 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 in a scene that recalls “Kika,” where Rossy de Palma’s maid is tied and gaged to a chair in the kitchen by her own brother.  Retrieving the key into the sealed door of the room where Vera has been held captive, he brutally rapes her.  Arriving just at the nick of time, Ledgard shoots the leopard man (his stepbrother) and yet another healing process of the bleeding and injured Vera begins.

In the course of the tale, Vera proves resilient and indestructible, surviving her own suicide, when she slit her throat after a failed attempt to run away from Ledgard.

“The Skin I Live In” is too hermetic and inward-looking for its own good. This includes the forced closure, which is decidedly an unhappy one.  Vera is wearing the same dress that he wanted his co-worker to try, and the latter suggested jokingly, “Why don’t YOU try it on?  The joke has become a reality.  Shows up at his mother’s store where he used to work as a man, he identifies himself, first to his peer, then to his own mama.  The last, ironic shot depicts variation of a newly formed family unit, now composed of three women. 

In “The Skin I Live In,” Banderas doctor 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 (existential) issues of to what extent human beings feel comfortable in their own skin, and how that feeling relates to their identity, are presented in a provocative and shocking, if not ‘particularly compelling way.  

That said, 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) in the woods.

Throughout the film, Almodovar shows skillful mastery over the technical aspects of the production. He has turned from a jokester to a stylist, from the maker of joyous satires to the director of shrill ultra-elegant melodramas.  It’s impossible not to be impressed by the slow pans along walls, floors, and 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 in the name of a calculated and manipulative revenge tale.