Thursday, March 8, 2012

Under "The Skin I Live In"

Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar is best known for making vibrant comedies and rich melodramas about complicated women and the men who love them. Over the course of his career, Almodóvar has certainly tackled his share of gender politics, twisted relationships, and mental instability, but I don't think anyone was expecting him to explore these themes by taking such a severe and unprecedented turn into genre territory the way that he does in his newest film, "The Skin I Live In."

In his best role in years, Antonio Banderas plays Robert Ledgard, a celebrated surgeon, who has invented a new artificial skin that is resistant to burns. He runs his experiments in a small private clinic in Toledo, currently occupied by a single patient, Vera (Elena Anaya). She serves as his reluctant test subject, secreted from the rest of the world. Under the care of the housekeeper, Marilia (Marisa Paredes), Vera's existence and relationship to Legard is a mystery. We don't know who she is, how she came to be at the clinic, and if her confinement is with her own consent or not. Information is revealed slowly, a piece at a time. We know that Legard had a beautiful wife, Gal, but something horrible happened to her. We know he also had a beautiful daughter, Norma (Blanca Suárez), but something horrible happened to her too. And to tell you much more than that would be spoiling things.

I think it's fair to call "The Skin I Live In" a horror movie, with its own mad scientist, its own monsters, and its own wonderfully pulpy moments of shock and revulsion and morbid curiosity. Surely the answer to the puzzle couldn't be what we think it is, could it? Surely Legard, who seems like a fairly reasonable man at the outset, wouldn't break so many taboos and cross so many ethical lines, would he? And at the same time, the movie fits right in Almodóvar's oeuvre, with its broken families, psychosexual and identity struggles, and lavish visuals. This is not an example of a director breaking from form, taking a jaunt into a different cinema universe to play with someone else's toys, but very much a natural extension of the ideas and concepts that Almodóvar has been exploring throughout his career.

I've always been drawn to cinema's few, rare female monsters, like the burn victim Cristiane from Georges Franju's "Eyes Without a Face," and Dren from "Splice," the child of a genetics experiment and two very imperfect parents. In almost all cases, aspects of their femininity become sources of horror. In "The Skin I Live In," this is no different. Vera, whose perfect skin is a product of science, is oppressed by her own body and all the accoutrements of womanhood to a certain extent. Almodóvar includes shot after shot of Elena Anaya's lovely figure in a black jumpsuit, attractive and sensual, yet also strange and alien. Men are inexorably drawn to Vera's beauty, which terrifies her until she comes to understand what a potent weapon her sexuality can be.

At first I was a little taken aback at how cold and clinical the film was toward its female characters. Then I realized it was reflecting the views of the male characters, constantly objectifying women's physical attributes and ignoring their individual personalities to the point where they view the female characters as interchangeable. Then you have the portrayal of of Vera, which I really can't get into without giving everything away. I'm sure Almodóvar's intentions were good, considering his treatment of similar themes in the past, but here he touches on some very delicate gender issues, and I couldn't shake the thought that Vera's story could really be taken the wrong way by certain people. At the same time, I was continually impressed by how bold and how startling the ideas were, and how well the director managed to navigate much of the tricky material.

Kudos must also go to the excellent cast, especially Elena Anaya in an extremely physically and psychologically demanding role. And it's so good to see Antonio Banderas in a part with some substance again after so many years of American kid's films. His Robert Legard is one of the creepier villains I've run across in a while, and I hope it leads to more interesting work. As for Pedro Almodóvar, I like that I have no idea what he's going to do next. I didn't know he had this movie in him, and it's such a delight to see him exploring new territory. Whatever he decides on, be it a return to his melodramas, or maybe conquering another genre like Westerns or film noir, I'll be watching.

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