The Skin I Live In review

November 30, 2011

I understand that The Skin I Live In is leaving Little Rock this weekend. But it’s opening in Northwest Arkansas. It’s a strange and probably polarizing film, but I like it a lot. I didn’t get a chance to get this review in to the state edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, so here it is now.

The Skin I Live In
Grade: 89
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Roberto Alamo, Marisa Parades
Director: Pedro Almodovar
Rating: R, for nudity, sex, language and violence
Running time: 117 minutes
In Spanish and Portuguese with English subtitles

Maybe the best way to describe Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar’s latest outrage against propriety is as a body horror comedy, a sort of mash-up of the work of David Cronenberg and The Rocky Horror Picture Show transposed into Almodovar’s trademarker heightened key without defaulting to high camp mode. The Skin I Live In is not the best or most ambitious Almodovar film — it raises certain obvious issues of identity and appetite it refrains from investigating too deeply — but it may be the most disquieting and shocking, the most likely to upset even his fans.

It is the story of a mad scientist, Robert Legard (Antonio Banderas), a surgeon who has suffered a series of tragedies. His wife was burned to death in a car accident. Then his daughter, Norma, threw herself out the window of the insane asylum to which she was committed after she was raped. After these events, Legard retreated to his country estate outside Toledo, Spain, where he maintains an operating theater. He is an expert on the cutting-edge science of face transplants, and he’s working on developing a synthetic, fire-resistant skin that might save human beings much pain and trauma.

At a presentation before the medical community, ethical questions are raised when it becomes apparent that Legard is engaging in transgenesis — deliberately introducing a pig’s genetic material into the human genome. He is ordered to stop at once, and he immediately pledges to give up his research.

But back at the hacienda, he keeps Vera (Elena Anaya), a beautiful woman whom he watches on a number of high definition screens positioned around his house. She wears a flesh colored cat suit that gives the impression of the denatured nudity of a Barbie doll. She has books to read and yoga to practice, and there is a kind of Zen minimalism to her comfortable cell. She may be his prisoner, his patient, or, in a nearly literal sense, his creation — perhaps a re-creation of his dead wife.

This being Almodovar, there is much that the plainly insane Legard doesn’t know — he doesn’t know the truth about his faithful housekeeper (Marisa Paredes), for instance, or about her son, Zeca (Roberto Alamo), who he grew up with and who ultimately betrayed him.

One afternoon Zeca, a criminal on the lam, visits his mother — because this is Almodovar, he is dressed as a tiger, a costume that lends him a credible disguise during Carnival — and begs her to hide him for a few days. He discovers Vera and seems to recognize her. He dies believing his mistake.

It is a mistake of another order that leads Legard to kidnap Vincente (Jan Cornet), a young man who, in a druggy haze, abuses Norma’s trust but probably isn’t quite a villain.

The Skin I Live In is a visual symphony of luscious, plumped reds and vibrating yellows, a hyper-stylized show of colorful surfaces. Its convoluted, snaky plot teases at the roots of Legard’s appetites as Banderas — who is never so good as this in his English-speaking roles — effectively conveys the pathological confidence of a true believer in his infallibility. Legard is a kind of beautiful cipher, a man of evident taste and ability who never seems to consider exactly what it is he really wants.

In this most extraordinary film, he turns out to be the most ordinary kind of monster.

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