And now for a something completely different… From Tarkovsky in the last post to Almodovar’s latest,The Skin I Live In, which I saw yesterday. As usual Almodovar serves up a top quality Hitchcockian story of revenge that manages to combine the gothic and macabre with a bit of philosophy, and a warm-hearted resolution of sorts.
The opening scenes are straight out of Frankenstein: inside the walls and security gates of his private estate, a hubristic plastic surgeon (Antonio Banderas, back with Almodovar after 20 years) is pushing the boundaries of his craft, operating on the captive Vera (Elena Anaya), creating and grafting skin tissue that is soft and sensitive, but can withstand burns. He is re-creating his dead wife, horribly burned in a car crash. Buckets of blood are delivered to the door, there is a great deal of scientific paraphernalia, a hi-tech security system and an amazing vacuum cleaner that you just pull out from the skirting board (I’ll have one of those!). Very soon there is voyeurism, sex, rape, and murder. And that’s just the first 20 minutes.
The film is great entertainment, a typical Almodovar bon-bon, melodramatic and at the same time playful. During production, Almodovar said:
The film will be a terror film, without screams or scares. It’s difficult to define, and although it comes close to the terror genre — something that appeals to me that I’ve never done — I won’t respect any of its rules. It’s the harshest film I’ve ever written, and Banderas’ character is brutal.
The harshest aspect of the film is the storyline; the depictions of violence are, as is usual with Almodovar, stylised and never exploitative. Indeed, the sense of pain and loss which suffuses the film pulls its melodramatic aspect into more thoughtful, even philosophical areas – underlined by the many references to books and reading, and by the appearance of art works by Louise Bourgeois (in a clothes shop, the assistants are working on little mannikins that look a lot like her fabric sculptures; and, when we first see the captive Vera voyeuristically on the surgeon’s CCTV, the body stocking she wears looks like that, too) –
– while her yoga pose looks remarkably like Bourgeois’s Arch of Hysteria:
Perhaps Almodovar was thinking, too, of how Bourgeois summed up her work: ‘The subject of pain is the business I am in’, she once wrote.
Throughout the film, Almodovar draws our attention to instances where surface appearances may mask the person beneath – it is carnival time, and people wear masks and costumes; in shops, clothes are selected to match a mood. Ultimately, though we can alter on the surface of our bodies, it is what lies within that cannot be changed. Perhaps. The film’s ending leaves that issue hanging.
Indeed that ending (just a quick fade to black from a typically Almodovarian encounter between a mother, a lesbian and a transsexual) could almost be the start of another, more interesting story…
The credits for The Skin I Live In last about a quarter of an hour, a good part of that taken up with a list of the books featured in the film. The list includes Alice Munro’s Friend of My Youth (which Vera is reading, above) and Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene.
So at the end of a thriller you emerge from the cinema chuffed that the director has treated you as an intelligent human being.
- Review by Philip French (Observer)