Film, TV and the Arts

Film, TV and the Arts

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Review: The Skin I Live In

In the hands of a madman...

Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Screenwriter: Pedro Almodóvar, based on the novel “Tarantula”, by Thierry Jonquet
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Jan Cornet, Marisa Paredes, Blanca Suarez & Roberto Alamo
Plot: Doctor Robert Ledgard is a successful plastic surgeon living in a secluded where he is keeping “a patient”, the beautiful Vera, in total isolation. The arrival of the maid’s criminal son arrives whilst Robert is away triggers a series of recollections about Robert’s tragic past, how Vera came to be there and what her surgery may have been for.
Running Time: 120m 19s

The issue of spoilers in reviews is a tricky one. You must give a small idea of what the plot is but shouldn’t give away too much. It’s the observer effect in film form – to talk to somebody about watching a film is to change their experience of watching it. In the case of Pedro Almodóvar’s new film, The Skin I Live In, it feels as though to say anything about the content of the film or even the films it is drawn from is to tamper with it.

Mystery and intrigue permeate this bizarre but brilliant horror film from its very first minutes. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) is a cosmetic surgeon who runs a clinic from his secluded house, which is inhabited only by himself, his maid (Marisa Paredes) and a strange patient (Elena Anaya), who spends her days locked in a room, wearing a full bodystocking and with only a dumb waiter for company. She is monitored intently by cameras, which Ledgard voyeuristically watches on a huge screen in his bedroom.

It is a truly strange set-up and, after an initial, brutal barrage (there is a horrific rape scene which is pretty unbearable), the film goes into flashbacks which are initially baffling, but then Almodóvar sets the extraordinary explanation in motion and it is absolutely compelling.

No doubt, the nature of the resolution of the plot will challenge the suspension of disbelief for many viewers. Nevertheless, the film’s two hours fly by in the hands of this master storyteller. The central mystery is gripping, but even when you seem to be lost in the film and have no idea where the story is going, you stick with it and have faith that all will be tied up neatly and satisfyingly.

An easy watch it isn’t though. This film has a brutality which is thoroughly harsh and it leads to many uncomfortable moments, and as the plot unfolds everything gets increasingly twisted. This is not one for the squeamish.

It is so distressing for numerous reasons, but it is certainly indebted to its actors. In particular, Elena Anaya as the beautiful Vera, is a beguiling screen presence, whilst Banderas is supremely controlled and often menacing as the disturbing Dr Ledgard. They tease out the mystery and heighten the cruelty and insanity of the plot, whilst they’re framed in Almodóvar’s beautiful and atmospheric world. There are plenty of little touches which are not just aesthetically pleasing but almost cheekily intriguing. The décor of Robert’s house is particularly well executed.

It is notable that the story is perhaps too bizarre and the characters perhaps too distorted by madness for the film to pack the punch it might. There is a level of distance between the audience and the characters which cannot quite be crossed entirely, but it does remain an effective and satisfying film: a modern-day, sci-fi inflected, Hitchcockian mystery-thriller, portraying a madness and viciousness in obsession and love which is absorbing, chilling and memorable.

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