Almodóvar's The Skin I Live In at the NY Film Festival
It's hard to discuss this movie without giving away its juicy secrets. Let's just say that it is always chilling to watch any story where a doctor disregards his Hippocratic oath. It is a premise that takes us straight into the horror genre and the world of mad scientists breaking the laws of nature. In this film, Antonio Banderas, back working with Almodóvar after a hiatus of twenty some odd years, plays Doctor Robert Ledgard, a brilliant but obsessed scientist who early in the film, in the middle of an academic presentation, announces to the medical community that he has invented a type of synthetic skin more resilient to damage. His invention could very well revolutionize plastic surgery. What his colleagues don't know is that this seemingly altruistic doctor is obsessed with a mysterious woman whom he has locked up in his house (The beautifully radiant Elena Anaya), and whose perfect skin is a result of the experiments that he has performed on her. There is more here than meets the eye, and as The Skin I Live In starts shedding its layers the film goes deep beyond the outer epidermis. Almodóvar manages to pull off this feat with the mastery of a skilled surgeon digging his scalpel as far in as it can go.
Lately, Almodóvar's scripts have examined how events in the past color our present existence. With this film, the director weaves a Freudian tale (based on a French novel by Thierry Jonquet) that descends into the darkest side of sex. We flashback in the story in order to reveal past events that are key to understanding the narrative. In this respect, this film owes much to Hitchcock's Vertigo. Even Alberto Iglesias's startling music reminds us very much of Bernard Herrmann's memorable score to that film. Throughout his career, but especially in his last few films, Almodóvar, like Hitchcock, has examined and re-examined the psychological aspects of sexuality, and this film might just be the pinnacle of that deep obsession. His films have always been obsessed with flesh, and now this one takes this subject to a new level.
Stylistically, Almodóvar has never been afraid of showing his characters running the gamut of emotions. In an Almodóvar film one can expect raw nerves and usually one gets a fair share of them. At times, though, this style does not translate well outside of the Spanish-speaking world and oftentimes Almodóvar is accused of allowing his actors to overact, and his stories to go out of control in a passionate avalanche of excess. Spanish language and culture can, indeed, be more baroque and likely to relish in excess than American audiences are accustomed to. As a result Almodóvar and kitsch are words that often and sometimes unfairly go together in the minds of many film goers. Without a doubt, The Skin I Live In is the most over-the-top that Almodóvar has been in a long time, but somehow, the director makes it work because he believes in the logic of this crazy world that he has created.
The Skin I Live In will haunt you for a long time after you've seen it. It is a totally satisfying well-made film, if at times too frank, too gruesome, and too self-absorbed in its own world. It is a chance to witness a modern master of the cinema at work in the territory that he knows best.