Like most people that don't follow every new film trend, Savant was introduced to the brilliant director Pedro Almodóvar through his hilarious 1988 comedy Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. It soon became apparent that that one Oscar-nominated hit was almost an anomaly among his movies. Almodóvar's taste ran toward the kinky and the transgressive. His pictures can be comedic and serious at the same time, and can be divided into essentially warm affirmations of life and colder thrillers with diabolically clever plotlines. Almodóvar also had a habit of folding admired works of art into his shows, whether plays (A Streetcar Named Desire) or movies (Johnny Guitar, Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace). The director never bowed to PC pressure. Audiences welcomed his slightly twisted stories, that touched upon subjects that ranged from mildly disturbing to beyond the pale: AIDS, sexual identity, transsexualism. Many of his pictures humanize lifestyles generally depicted as immoral or perverse. A couple of his earlier films edged into horror territory, and one of his later ones about homosexual predators (Bad Education) constructed a web of cruelty that was difficult to bear. 2011's The Skin I Live In plunges back into the creep zone with a complicated, compassion-challenged medical horror tale studded with genuinely shocking (or depressing) plot turns that would be terrible spoilers if revealed. I'll instead tiptoe around the edges of the tale.
Longtime Almodóvar collaborator Antonio Banderas returns as the movies' latest incarnation of The Mad Doctor. Favorite Marisa Paredes (The Flower of My Secret) also returns in a major supporting part.
The wealthy, intimidating surgeon Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) lives and works in his walled villa outside of town. He has dropped out of the medical community rather than discontinue experiments considered unethical. Aided only by a devoted housekeeper, Marilia (Marisa Paredes), he keeps a strange, beautiful woman named "Vera Cruz" (Elena Anaya) prisoner in an ornate room lined with TV cameras that he monitors on a giant wall screen. Vera wears a contoured body suit made of a surgical webbing-like material, including a partial mask. Robert's forbidden research has developed a fantastic new skin substitute grown genetically from human and pig DNA -- it is so strong that a blowtorch does not harm it. We learn that this new skin has completely replaced Vera's epidermis, piece by piece. What follows is a grotesque tangle of relationships, crimes, tragedies and abominable surgery. Robert has an unstable brother, Zeca (Roberto Álamo), a fugitive who returns wearing a bizarre Carnival costume. Zeca commits a rape, confusing Vera with Robert's deceased wife. Robert also mourns his daughter Norma (Blanca Suárez), who was raped after a party several years before; Robert exacted a terrible vengeance on the boy supposedly responsible, Vicente (Jan Cornet). The storyline becomes a tangle of flashbacks that reveal one horror after another. Through it all Robert Ledgard remains convinced that his actions are justified by his superior knowledge and skills. Several colleagues sometimes join him in performing illegal surgeries at the villa, usually for high-paying customers; one of them tries to blackmail Robert into continuing the practice. But the bizarre events continue until most of the cast is dead.
The Skin I Live In doesn't follow Almodóvar's previous habit by referencing an older movie for a scene or two -- most of the picture is a variation on Georges Franju's Eyes without a Face, the landmark French horror picture about diabolical transplants. We're not talking vague similarities, as much of the donor film's story setup has been grafted intact into the recipient film, right down to transposed scenes, character relationships, the mystery of identity and even the "mad operating theater" reached through a creepy brick-lined corridor. The script by Pedro and his brother Augustín then piles on so many character complications that the film often seems overloaded with overripe ideas. One of several back-stories refers to Robert Ledgard's struggle with his black sheep brother Zeca, a drug dealer, for the attention of his wife. Her violent demise in a burning car (echo Eyes) was Zeca's fault.
Now Robert appears to be re-making his lost wife in the person of Vera Cruz -- we're told that Vera is a dead ringer for the dead woman, and Zeca is sufficiently convinced of it to sexually assault her. Does that lethal triangle sound familiar? A dead woman mourned by two men, one of them a mad scientist who recreates her in another form? That's also the back-story of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, minus the death-in-childbirth business. The design of Vera's 'body forming' surgical leotard has a bodice line reminiscent of the design of the Maschine-Mann robotrix made to replace scientist Rotwang's beloved wife Hel. By the way, Ledgard's dead wife is named Gal.
And that's just one sidebar issue handled in flashback. The central horror of The Skin I Live In deals with the true identity of Vera Cruz. Almodóvar pulls off quite a narrative coup when he succeeds in convincing us that Robert has "made" Vera from ..... we won't go further.
Knowing all too well the confrontational nature of the director's wilder pictures, my first-viewing resistance to The Skin I Live In may be due to my own limitations. In some ways this orgy of pulp horror twists is too much of a good thing. It isn't a matter of prudery, as I had no problems with seeing a miniature man enter a giant vagina in Almodóvar's twisted but very human Talk to Her. Vera Cruz's story is pretty unpleasant, and so is the back-story with Gal and Zeca. The awful fate of young Norma gives us yet another rape (or near-rape) under decidedly sick conditions. Some of this dance of misery reminds us of the sickly feeling of old Tod Browning horrors, but my reaction was mostly dull surprise: "O jeez ... not that...." There's nobody to root for here. Antonio Banderas is interesting but fundamentally unlikeable and most everybody else is an thoughtless enabler of medical crimes or a pathetic victim. Worse, Elena Anaya's Vera should be intensely interesting yet comes off as a confection custom created to implement the film's wild thesis. The story has internal logic, but without much emotional glue to hold it together. We're impressed, but not exactly entertained. The ancient shocker Island of Lost Souls suggested all manner of bestial sex perversion and still kept our rapt attention; Skin ends up resolving itself by having people point guns at each other. After all the unemotional craziness, the bizarre homecoming /coming out finale doesn't have the desired effect.
This time around Almodóvar decided on a much colder tone. We mostly remember the unpleasant, cruel moments. For all the impressive designs, the movie does not strike us as very beautiful, either. There's nothing to compare with the poetic, distilled horror in Eyes without a Face when one of its victims escapes, with her head still wrapped in bandages. She doesn't know that her face has been stolen. We desperately want her to get away, but part of us also wants her to die before she finds out what has happened to her. Almodóvar has made us understand and care for some pretty extreme characters, but The Skin I Live In remains at an icy remove from such concerns.
The Skin I Live In sees the director's fine group of designers coming up with beautiful sets and costumes. Vera Cruz's special leotards make her look like a lab-grown superwoman. With the new skin she's been sewn into, she may indeed be a superwoman, but we never find out. Almodóvar's radical theme, the interchangeability of sexual roles and identities, is made very clear. But this horror film seems a very roundabout way to express it!
Sony Pictures Classics Blu-ray + DVD Combo Pack of The Skin I Live In is the expected beautiful transfer of a new movie. The images sparkle and our attention is constantly being drawn to some new item of costuming or set design. Almodóvar loves saturated colors, which always look great in Blu-ray. Alberto Iglesias' music score isn't as memorable as it might be -- a pair of musical performances at a fatal party seem shoehorned into the story.
Sony's combo package includes a second DVD disc. The extras offered are a promotional behind-the-scenes featurette, a brief video of the New York premiere and a long interview with the director before a live audience, conducted by Anne Thompson.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Skin I Live In Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.