'The Skin I Live In': Almodóvar Goes Crazy
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar began as a geographically distant contemporary of John Waters and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, making shorts and features that were raw, sexually provocative and politically charged, albeit somewhat indirectly so. Since those '70s origins, the writer-director, who sometimes simply signs his films "Almodóvar," has become something of an international art-house brand. His increasingly polished and visually sumptuous films (including "Talk to Her," "All About My Mother" and "Volver") are packed with color and music, and while they often deal with serious themes, their mix of influences -- pop art, '50s Hollywood melodramas, high camp, film noir -- keep his concoctions buoyant, making them real "celebrations of life," if you will, rather than concoctions of outrage.
His latest film, "The Skin I Live In," is something rather other, however. Its premise is something out of a '50s horror or sci-fi film. A physician/research scientist, operating out of a severely misguided sense of mission, is working on developing an organic, burn-proof skin. His findings, as announced at a very high-level medical conference, excite his colleagues, but raise suspicions among those who know him well. Those suspicions, the viewer already knows, are founded: Dr. Ledgard has been conducting his research on a human guinea pig, Vera, a seemingly flawlessly beautiful young woman who he keeps as a relatively calm (for a while, at least) captive in his gorgeous mansion, the running of which is presided over by a rather Germanic woman whose relation to Ledgard is, in keeping with the tradition of '50s horror, is intriguingly vague at first.
Soon enough, the woman's bad-seed son shows up, and all hell breaks loose, and the film also breaks open to a flashback structure that seems herky-jerky and arbitrary. Still, what it tells us is even crazier than what we've seen thus far. And it gets crazier still. Indeed, at every twist, a part of me was thinking, "Really? You're gonna go there?" And indeed, there is where the film goes, again and again. And yet Almodóvar makes it work. Not, one feels, necessarily through sheer filmmaking skill and panache, although this is as visually and sonically gorgeous as anything the filmmaker has ever done; no, Almodóvar appears to succeed via sheer force of will and conviction. As a critic friend commented to me after a screening, it seems the work of a very young, hungry and pissed-off filmmaker. Hard to believe that Almodóvar is now over 60.
But here's where the problem with reviewing "The Skin I Live In" really emerges: It's pretty much impossible to discuss its themes without revealing a lot of those plot points, and I really do believe the viewer needs to experience them directly in order for the film to do its work properly. Now, these themes are pretty familiar in Almodóvar's work, but it's the force and passion and sheer anger with which they're introduced and subsequently addressed that gives the film a good deal of its power. The seemingly arbitrary and challenging flashback/flash-forward structure eventually reveals itself as a mechanism of near-clockwork precision, delivering revelations for maximum emotional impact, building up to a final scene that's possibly the most shattering sequence you'll see in a film this year, or in years to come.
So rather than risk spoilers, I'll wrap up by sharing the other big news about this film, which is that Dr. Ledgard is played by Antonio Banderas, who got his beginning with Almodóvar before coming across the pond and going Hollywood. That break caused some personal estrangement between the filmmaker and his, well, discovery. But not only does Banderas step back into Almodóvar World without seeming to have broken his stride in the least, his portrayal of a complex and in many ways profoundly unsympathetic character is one of the boldest and best performances he's essayed in years. If this wasn't a foreign-language film, I'd imagine he'd be a lock for an Oscar nomination, if such things interest you. Matching him at every turn is Elena Anaya as Vera. While no stranger to extreme exposure onscreen (she recently starred in "Room in Rome," playing one of two women who spend most of the film's running time nude), the demands of this particular role, both physical and emotional, are unique to say the least. This should be a star-making performance.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film
critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various
publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com.
He lives in Brooklyn.