Pedro Almodovar is known for many things: his incredible sense of humor, affection for his characters, and knack for making circuitous, complicated narratives compelling and satisfying. One thing he’s less known for is freaking people out, and that’s exactly what he sets out to do in his latest effort, “The Skin I Live In.”
Apparently, it all started last year at a press conference at which Almodovar stated that he was suddenly interested in making a horror film. Many cognoscenti expressed shock at this but, if you think about it, there are many horrific vignettes in some of Almodovar’s best and most respected work: the birth scene at the beginning of “All About My Mother,” the murder in “Volver,” practically everything in “Talk To Her.” And “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!,” Almodovar’s last collaboration with Antonio Banderas before “Skin,” was hardly a parable of everyday domestic bliss.
This time, Banderas plays Dr. Robert Ledgard, a world famous plastic surgeon whose wife was horribly burned in a car accident, and threw herself out a window to her death after seeing her own reflection. Because of this experience, the doctor has become obsessed with synthesizing a better version of human skin that is stronger, softer and more resilient than the real thing (a description that could be applied to many of Almodovar’s characters, incidentally). To this end, he kidnaps a “patient” and grafts this new skin onto her while keeping her imprisoned in his villa. Of course, the doctor’s obsession extends beyond his patient’s skin itself, and the characters become entangled in a web of power plays and deceit that wouldn’t be out of place in 19th-century opera. Did I mention there’s a character who appears only in a tiger costume?
Post-transformation, the captive is played by Elena Anaya, whose model-like body frequently takes up almost the entire screen (yet is surprisingly tiny in person; she was dwarfed by Banderas as the press conference, despite her gigantic sparkly heels). Unusually for him, in “Skin” Almodovar is interested in the (ostensibly) female body primarily as a spectacle, an object to be beheld and played with, rather than the embodiment of a character’s soul. There is much window-dressing, in the form of framing, special effects and costumes designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier, but the characters themselves are pretty one-dimensional. This is disappointing, as Almodovar’s characters are usually deep and vivacious, especially his women. Having them reduced to pieces in a narrative puzzle makes it hard to work up the enthusiasm that the frenzied narrative is clearly trying to create.
Once everything comes together at the end of the film, the effect is somewhat less satisfying than what I’d hoped; the film is strangely cold and clinical, and lacks the warmth and humanity that I associate with Almodovar. Though there are echoes of everything from “Eyes Without A Face” and “Frankenstein” to Buñuel and Cronenberg, “Skin” isn’t as creepy as it sets out to be, and isn’t as compelling either. Though it’s certainly recognizable as an Almodovarian narrative, it feels a bit like he’s just going through the motions.
© Lita Robinson 2011