I am probably not the best person to comment on a film by the hugely popular Spanish director Pedro Almodovar. Of the man’s 20 or so films to date, I had only seen precisely one — his seventh, 1988’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and that many years ago. But that film had struck me as being wildly funny and entertaining, I recall, so it was with great enthusiasm that I popped Almodovar’s 18th offering, The Skin I Live In, into my DVD player the other night. Originally presented in competition at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2011 under its Spanish appellation La Piel Que Habito, the picture, as it turns out, is just remarkable; one of those films that makes you want to start checking out/checking off all the other items in its creator’s oeuvre. Very much a modern-day horror classic, the film takes a healthy dose of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 classic Vertigo, mixes in a large serving of Georges Franju’s 1959 wonder Eyes Without a Face, spices the mix with a dash of Michael Winner’s 1974 crowd-pleaser Death Wish, and emerges somehow, thanks to its director’s canny ability, as a unique creation unto itself.
In the film, the viewer makes the acquaintance of a nice-looking, widower surgeon named Dr. Robert Ledgard (exceptionally well played by Antonio Banderas, here appearing in his sixth Almodovar film; his first with the director since 1990’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!), who has just been warned by the president of his medical association to cease his experiments employing the process known as “transgenesis.” Ledgard, it seems, has discovered a way to create a tougher, mosquito-resistant skin employing the cells of pigs. Though he outwardly seems to comply with the president’s wishes, Ledgard, the viewer soon learns, has been performing illegal skin grafts on a beautiful young woman named Vera Cruz (36-year-old Spanish actress Elena Anaya) at his secluded country estate near Toledo. Vera is very much a prisoner in Ledgard’s villa, we sense, kept behind a locked door while Ledgard observes her remotely via a humongous, wall-size monitor. Meanwhile, we flash back to six years earlier, and learn that Ledgard’s daughter had once been (kinda sorta) raped by a young man named Vicente, driving her to psychosis and suicide. The enraged Ledgard had kidnapped Vicente and had kept him locked in a room, as well. And that is just the beginning of this remarkably unhinged story…
For this viewer, the “aha moment” when we first realize what these two stories from different time frames have to do with one another was one of the most pleasurable and thrilling times I’ve had with a motion picture in ages. Almodovar, as director and screenwriter here (the story, by the way, is apparently loosely based on French author Thierry Jonquet’s 1984 novel Mygale, released here in the U.S. as Tarantula), keeps the viewer guessing, and the film’s numerous time shifts and discrete story lines will surely make some wonder just what the heck is going on. My advice: Just stay with it, and know that everything will come together quite coherently, and that when it does, it’s gonna be a doozy!
Besides the wonderful contributions of Almodovar and his two lead actors, The Skin I Live In also boasts an excellent score by Alberto Iglesias and top-notch lensing by cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine; both had worked with the director at least half a dozen times previously. The set decoration on this film, by Vicent Diaz, is also stunning, and Ledgard’s villa, complete with bizarre wall paintings and assorted oddball decor, is a genuine feast for the eyes. Kudos must also go out to Marisa Paredes as Ledgard’s “housekeeper” Marilia, although she is far from just a housekeeper, as the viewer learns; here, she serves a somewhat similar role as the great Italian actress Alida Valli in the Franju film. Adding a decided touch of outré weirdness to an already bizarre film is Roberto Alamo as Marilia’s son Zeca, who, dressed in a Carnivale tiger costume, barges into the house, on the run, and proceeds to force himself on Vera!
For this viewer, though, it is Banderas who steals the show; his thesping here was something of a revelation for me, who had not previously seen him perform as a leading man, or indeed in anything other than the 1993 Tom Hanks vehicle Philadelphia. Handsome, suave, easily dominating every scene that he appears in, and yet evincing a definite touch of crazed obsession that is apparent at his core, he gives us a performance here that is surely one to remember; a pity that the only prize Banderas garnered for his work in this film was a, um, Fangoria Chainsaw Award! Elena Anaya, happily, DID manage to win a Golden Globe for her performance, and deservedly so. Surprisingly, The Skin I Live In itself was not even nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar; it might have been my choice, but then again, I still have not seen that year’s winner, the Iranian picture A Separation. But good as Asghar Farhadi’s film is supposed to be, I cannot imagine it being more colorful, or surprising, or more clever and satisfying, than Almodovar’s picture. Ending on a wonderful note, in which both Vera and Vicente seem to be offered a chance at love and happiness, the film truly is a winner on every level.
Y’know, I think I’m finally ready to take in Almodovar’s Matador and Volver now. I can see how this dude just might prove, uh … what’s the Spanish word for “addicting”?