The Skin I Live In – Film Review

The Skin I Live In

On October 12, 2011 I did a Q and A with Pedro Almodovar, Antonio Banderas and Elana Anaya following the preview screening of The Skin I Live In. The screening was a private event for members of The National Board of Review and I can only say in general that we discussed, among other things, the process of adapting the original novel, developing the characters, and the making of the film. Here is a link to my original review on the web site of The National Board of Review.

Original review posted on October 12, 2011

Thomas W. Campbell

The Skin I Live in, the new film by Pedro Almodovar, is a deliciously dark and twisted tale that is masterfully told and beautifully shot. The cinematography is by veteran José Luis Alcaine, who last worked with Almodovar on Bad Education (2004). Alcaine’s work is classical and assured, reminiscent of John Alcott’s cinematography for Stanley Kubrick in The Shining and Clockwork Orange. The image has a classical and substantial look that fully supports the carefully crafted screenplay and restrained but simmering performances. Although much of the film fits comfortably into the horror film genre there are no creeping hand held shots with forced POV perspectives. Almodovar abhors the cheesy tricks of genre storytelling – almost as much as he loves to exploit the conventions and expectations that the narrative presents. The Skin I Live In is foremost a melodrama, filled with the passions and risks, roller coaster emotions, and the dark twists one would hope for. It’s also a mystery that announces itself gradually, a thriller, a crime story and, most unexpectedly, a bittersweet and dangerous tale of love and loss.

The three central characters in the film live in a stately mansion on the outskirts of Toledo, Spain that is spacious, elegantly furnished, and comes equipped with some additional odd features – a room that is locked from the outside, security cameras that watch an inhabitant’s every move and, in the basement, a world-class surgical laboratory. Marilla, played by Marisa Paredes (Huma in All About My Mother and veteran of numerous Almodovar films) is the housekeeper and mother figure who literally keeps an eye on Vera (Elena Enaya). Marilla keeps an eye on a closed circuit camera that projects images from the younger woman’s spacious room – a room that is also a prison with heavy doors that are locked from the outside. The master of the house is Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), a famous plastic surgeon who has pioneered revolutionary techniques for facial reconstruction. It is Ledgard who lords over Vera and we soon learn that his attempt to develop a super durable human skin replacement is related in some way to his captivity and domination of the woman. Vera, young, beautiful and rebellious, is also the central mystery of the film – why is she there and what is happening to her?

Almodovar is known to make a family atmosphere for cast and crew during production (and before – he rehearsed with his main cast on The Skin I Live In for over two months). Banderas and Almodovar seemed to grow up on screen together, collaborating on an eccentric collection of characters – including a young bullfighter who confesses to a series of murders (Matador) and a felon who kidnaps a porn actress to make her fall in love with him (Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down). This still leaves us unprepared for the complex machinations that fuel the mind and actions Dr. Robert Ledgard, their newest and most intricate creation. Despite the quirkiness of his stories – the film director in Broken Embraces who falls for his producer’s wife and loses his sight in a terrible accident, the male nurse in Talk to Her who is looking for “love” and goes too far with a comatose patient – Almodovar’s directing style is anything but hysterical. The palpable tension of his narratives – whether comic or dramatic (they are often both) – comes from the emotional highwire act that his characters must endure. They are often just trying to hold on until they get what they want. When Carmen Maura, as Pepa in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, calmly wreaks havoc on everyone she meets she’s really just trying to find her estranged lover to tell him something. Like the man and woman in L’Age d’Or by Luis Buñuel (a fellow Spaniard and favorite director of Almodovar’s) who just want to have sex but can’t escape the machinations of the world around them, Almodovar’s characters are driven by desire and seldom respond or care about the moral or ethical concerns of society.

The musical score by Alberto Iglesias, who has worked with the director on numerous films and has been twice nominated for Academy awards, is rich and haunting and adds to the anxiety that fuels the story. Musical motifs are used to establish relationships between characters in a way that helps prepare the viewer for some of the narrative twists – especially a simple piano melody that we identify with Vera.

The Skin I Live In is based on the slim novel Mygale (also known as Tarantula) by Thierry Jonquet. Published in 1995, with an English edition in 2003, the book is a noir/horror tale that contains the basic elements of the film (a doctor, a woman who could be mistaken for his wife, and a strange backstory fueled by revenge). The book reads like a fusion of Jim Thompson, American pulp master of the 1950s, and the Grand Guignol theater of the 1920s – cruel, creepy, and painted across the mind in gritty black and white. Almodovar transcends the book in terms of style – he creates a tactile world using choice locations (the mansion, a classic European restaurant for an important wedding reception) and inspired set design (the high tech basement laboratory). Working with art director Antxon Gomez, Almodovar fills the world with dense primary colors (muted greens and yellows, subtle use of reds), tactile objects (the rubber face mask worn by Vera) and inspired wardrobe (formal attire for the doctor, an earth tone full-body suit for Vera, a purple silk dress on a woman passed out in front of radiant green plants).

The original novel is so slim and taut that Almodovar’s writing approach is less Ethan Coen’s dictum that adaptation is all about what you leave out and more about surgically transforming characters and redrafting the flow of narrative to fit the storytelling possibilities of cinema. Though the reworking is subtle, the end of the film is so different from the book that it represents a complete subversion of Jonquet’s story – and fits perfectly with Almodovar’s own sensibilities. When discussing the film at the Cannes Film Festival Almodovar struggled hard to not to give the central twist of the story away, so I will leave the biggest discoveries as well to the viewer’s experience. Like The Sixth Sense and Shutter Island, The Skin I Live In will hit you with a surprise that you won’t see coming – and will immediately complicate the way you look at the main characters in the story. It’s a dark, stylish and unnervingly satisfying journey.

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