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A no-spoilers review of an absorbing and disturbing near-masterpiece
on December 19, 2011
The most important thing I can tell you about Pedro Almodóvar's film, The Skin I Live In (original Spanish title: La piel que habito) is that you should avoid as much as possible knowing anything about it beyond the most basic setup before seeing it. This is one of those cases where spoilers truly can rob you of the full experience of a film. I say this as someone who went into the movie knowing little about it beyond the fact that Pedro Almodóvar directed it and that it had to do with a plastic surgeon obsessed with a mysterious female patient. And that really is the best way to see it.
Adapted from Thierry Jonquet's novel Tarantula (original French title: Mygale) by Pedro Almodóvar and his brother Agustín Almodóvar, The Skin I Live In is a complex and, as the background layers are peeled away through revelation, deeply disturbing and chilling film.
It begins in the present day where we see Robert Legard (Antonio Banderas), a prominent plastic surgeon and medical researcher who, because of the tragic death of his wife in a fiery auto accident several years earlier, is obsessed with creating a new kind of skin superior to the skin we're born with, one that is not only both tougher and more resistant to burning and injury but also heals quicker and with little to no scarring. In his mansion, Dr. Legard has a special patient under his private, personal care, a young woman named Vera (Elena Anaya), on whom he is trying his new skin out. Our first impression is that Vera is a burn victim that Legrand is caring for, but it quickly becomes clear that Vera is more prisoner than patient. But just who is Vera? And how did she come into Legrand's rather questionable 'care'? And why does she so strongly resemble Legrand's dead wife?
As in so many his films, The Skin I Live In has many of Almodóvar's almost trademark themes running all through it: complex familial relationships; the intertwining of family and personal secrets; the nature of desire, brutality and obsession; the lengths to which individuals can and will go; how actions can have the most unexpected and sometimes devastating consequences, and how, ultimately, we can never escape our pasts.
The performances are pitch perfect, most particularly Antonio Banderas' controlled and controlling - and casually chilling - Legard, who has his mansion wired so that he can observe his 'patient' from almost any part of the house, and Elena Anaya's Vera with her perfect face and body and the haunted eyes that peer out from the skin she lives in, always aware that she is being observed. Added into the mix - and subtly working in other elements from classic standards of horror - are Marisa Paredes's Marilia, Legard's old housekeeper who serves as a kind of matronly Igor to Legard's Victor Frankenstein, fiercely loyal but openly disapproving; Roberto Álamo's Zeca, a brutal criminal on the run who serves as a kind of Hyde to Legard's Jekyll - lust, rage and animal cunning to Legard's cool controlled calculation. And last but not least, Jan Cornet's Vicente, a callow young fool whose impulsive self-indulgence triggers a chain of events with consequences more dire than he could imagine. All of whom are bound to each other in ways known and unknown.
The only reason I rate this four stars instead of five and call it a near-masterpiece instead of an all-out masterpiece is in how the final acts play out. After taking the viewer through a series of ever deeper and increasingly disturbing revelations, Almodóvar seems to settle for what I felt was a disappointingly conventional resolution. But that said, the film still stands out for all of the unexpected places it did take you before that slip back into the expected. There may be times when you'll think you've seen this movie before and you know what's going on, but I assure you, you haven't and you won't until the revelations have been made.
Highly recommended for any fan of Almodóvar's and for anyone else who likes well-crafted films that really push the boundaries.