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The Skin I Live In [La Piel Que Habito] (2011)
~Review by Grawlix (October 2019)
I don’t remember exactly when or how I first became aware of Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In, but I do remember what drew me to it. Almodóvar himself described the film as “a horror story without screams or frights”, and multiple outlets claimed that it was totally bloodless. The bloodless part turned out to be not, strictly speaking, accurate, but for a movie about an obsessive (some might call him crazed) surgeon, it’s about as bloodless as it could be. At a time when theaters were filled with Hostel and Saw sequels, the idea of a more subtle horror film was something I was keen to explore.
Antonio Banderas plays Robert Ledgard, a brilliant, but somewhat reclusive private surgeon who manages to invent a new, artificial skin called Gal. Being resistant to burns and insect bites, Gal seems capable of revolutionizing modern medicine. But when questioned by a colleague at a symposium, Ledgard reveals in confidence that Gal was developed partially through the use of human genetic material. As this is a severe breach of medical ethics, not to mention the law, it precludes Gal from going into production and would cost Ledgard his license and reputation (which apparently already has a blemish or two) if the truth were ever revealed.
As it turns out, the human component to the Gal formula is only the second biggest secret Ledgard is keeping. The first is that his primary experimental subject is a woman that he has been holding captive in a monitored room in his villa for several years. The woman is named Vera (Elena Anaya), and she and Robert share an unusual, almost Stockholm Syndrome-esque relationship. Oh, but the movie is just getting started. It is revealed that Robert has progressively been surgically molding Vera to resemble his late wife, who was burned horribly in an auto accident and later committed suicide. Then, the criminal son of Robert’s housekeeper (and confidant) appears, wanting some free, identity changing surgery. This ends in some violence (and some unexpected revelations as to their relationships).
Which brings us to the halfway point where the movie detours into an extended flashback sequence. At first seemingly having nothing to do with the plot, it culminates in a twist that forces the viewer to reevaluate everything that has happened up to that point. In other words, it’s the best kind of twist. But, as intriguing as the twist itself is, it does manage to undermine some of the character development of the first half of the film, with motivations previously portrayed as rationally aberrant now seeming more inscrutable. What’s more, there is a subtle change in narrative focus as the story returns to the present day. It’s not a Psycho level swerve, but it is a rather unexpected abdication of some of its narrative capital. From there, the movie practically sprints to the finish line. Having put some very interesting ideas into play, it spends frustratingly little time on their implications before ending fairly abruptly.
This is totally Banderas’s movie and his performance is definitely a highlight. Not only is it something of a novelty to watch him acting in his native Spanish, but his stoic and deadpan portrayal of Ledgard is a model of smoldering restraint. Hard to believe this is the same guy who voices Puss in Boots. Ledgard is clearly a man capable of anything while revealing nothing, and as the movie goes on, the rabbit hole that is his life and his work (and his pathology) ends up going very deep indeed.
The Skin I Live In owes a significant debt to 1960’s French classic Eyes Without a Face. The obsessive surgeon with a laboratory built into his home, the housekeeper/accomplice, the cutting edge (no pun intended) skin grafting techniques are all out of the latter film’s playbook. Based on initial impressions, I was afraid that this would end up merely being a thinly disguised remake. As it turns out, there was no reason to worry. The Skin I Live In begins in familiar territory, but in many ways the early stages are a red herring as the movie’s true intentions end up lying in a much different realm. It turned out to be a little disappointing for me as I was very much invested in some of the early developments before they started falling by the wayside amid the picture’s multiple twists and turns, but ultimately I was glad that it decided to eschew the safe route to tell a more unorthodox story.
I’ve been trying very hard to avoid spoilers in this review. Though this sentiment applied to pretty much everything I’ve watched, for this film in particular I’d advise going in knowing as little about the story as possible but also be sure to keep an open mind. The Skin I Live In takes a lot of turns with its story, and while I didn’t fully agree with all of them, I appreciate its willingness to go off the beaten path all the same.
Final Score: B+
Its follow through doesn’t quite match some of its build up, but The Skin I Live In nevertheless makes interesting decisions that are bound to start conversations after it’s over. It dares to be different which, let’s face it, is an uncommon quality in film these days.
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