Pedro Almodovar, 2011
Starring: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes, Jan Cornet
There are a lot of things I love about the few Almodovar's films I've seen, but something in particular that he does with character keeps me coming back for more. He has a way of keeping his protagonists untouchable, unknowable, always out of reach. While this might be irritating for more conventional audiences, it is probably my favorite thing about Almodovar as a director. He reminds us not only that characters in film and fiction are never meant to be real people, but also that other people can never be completely known to us and we will only ever see them from certain angles and vantage points.
While I unquestionably loved La piel que habito, it is a troubled, elusive film that is akin to Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face and David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers. Medical experimentation, sexual horror, and a profound sense of identity confusion and displacement connect it with these earlier films, but it manages to stand on its own as an unsettling tale of mystery, trauma, and revenge.
Based loosely on Thierry Jonquet's novel Mygale, The Skin I Live In follows Robert (Banderas), a surgeon who has been doing some unconventional and possibly immoral experiments on synthetic skin. He also keeps a girl in his home who wears a body suit, is not allowed to leave her room, and is always monitored by camera. It becomes clear that Robert has been doing these experiments because he lost his beloved, if unfaithful wife to a fiery car accident and though she survived, she eventually killed herself when she saw the extensive burn damage to her body. The girl, Vera, bears a strange resemblance to his dead wife. There is also the matter of his daughter, who killed herself after a traumatic assault. But who is Vera? How did she get in the room?
Told in a series of chronological leaps backwards and forwards, The Skin I Live In is essentially a blend of horror and melodrama. It visits Almodovar's trademark themes of trauma, memory, sexuality, and identity, as well as revolving around the two mainstays of body horror: sexual trauma and medical experimentation. Like Dead Ringers, The Skin I Live In is made up of characters struggling with anxiety and loneliness, characters trapped in their own bodies and trying, but miserably failing, to make the best of it. The plot is completely implausible, but if you treat it like a horror/sci-fi film, the more impossible elements melt away in Almodovar's constantly whirling, changing cinematic creation.
There are plenty of reasons I would highly recommend this film, but first and foremost is Almodovar's visual style. Full of bold colors, striking set pieces, and references to many famous paintings, the set is dripping with important symbolic details that it will probably take a few viewings to catch all of. There is also the importance of masks, costumes, and uniforms. Most of the clothes were designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier and they all play critical importance to the various characters' shifting identities, the way that costume shapes personality.
Horror fans will not only enjoy the suggestive, but disgusting body horror elements, but also the clear Gothic inspiration. There is an obvious but elegant nod to Victor Frankenstein with Banderas's Robert and it is great to see him return to form. His chilling, but somewhat sympathetic character is reminiscent of some of Hitchcock's handsome, charming if utterly cold and determined villains.
There is a twist that is revealed towards the end of the film, but you're just going to have to see it to find out what it is. The Skin I Live In is out on a 2-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo pack from Sony.