The Skin I Live In

Antonio Banderas is one of those actors who are so good that people often just take him for granted. With his Hollywood success of the 90s and afterwards, people also forget, or just overlook, his beginnings in the scrappy, indie-ish Spanish cinema of Pedro Almodóvar, another artist who has seen much international acclaim in the last 20 years, but who, luckily, people do not yet seem to take for granted (at least, I don’t). Their early collaborations were key in shaping and defining both their styles and careers for their international success which was to follow, from the dark-sexy Matador, to the wacky-sexy Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, to the…complicated-sexy (and still-debated) Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! Now, 21 years since they last worked together, would the magic still be there, or would they simply be two international superstars, working together but not together. Do they, in other words, still have use for one another?

For this upcoming Halloween it seems like the Michael Myers mask has some competition

In The Skin I Live In, Banderas plays Robert Ledgard, a renowned surgeon and skin-graft specialist who has developed a new kind of artificial skin for burn victims. Although stating publicly that he has only tested the skin on mice, we know that he is secretly carrying out a human trial on a mysterious woman named Vera (Elena Anaya), whom he keeps captive in the locked bedroom beside his own. But is the secrecy of the human experimentation the only reason why Ledgard can’t let Vera go? Who is she, what is her connection to Ledgard’s disturbing past, and (without giving away any of the requisite, endless twists and turns of plot) where will all the pieces fall when this house of secrets and lies inevitably comes crashing down?

Despite its grammatically-awkward English title (would I have prefered The Skin In Which I Live?), The Skin I Live In was one of the movies that I most looked forward to seeing this year, not only because it was Pedro Almodóvar but also sheer curiosity how he would turn Thierry Jonquet’s rather thin (in many senses of the word) French neo-noir novelette Mygale (which I read and enjoyed, sort of) into the full-fledged Almodóvar experience. To answer, the director succeeds by wisely staying largely with the psychological aspects of the story, laying the suspense on the characters themselves (unlike in the novel where, the big “twist” aside, the main suspense was in wondering how the author was going to tie all the loose ends together). The list of themes of the final product read like a grocery list of typically Almodóvaran concerns: secrets and lies, mothers and sons (the characters of the maid (Marisa Paredes) and her bank-robbing son (Roberto Álamo) are straight out of “Almodóvar Central Casting”), past and present, master and slave, Stockholm Syndrome, sex, rape, rage, revenge, and forgiveness, not to mention the trademark gallows humour (quick, offhand, and totally deadpan), a fair bit of the absurd, and a fair bit of commentary by the characters on how absurd it all is. Add to this an almost-kooky, sci-fi-ish sensibility and you have a movie that, in the hands of anyone less than a master director, would be an absolute trainwreck (albeit a fascinating one) of style, pacing, and tone. In Almodóvar’s hands, of course, the different elements are bedazzled puzzle pieces, fitting seamlessly into a complex and rewarding whole. The Skin I Live In is a movie that I like more the more I think about it, and I cannot stop thinking about.

Banderas is, of course, the big star here, and his skills are on full display as an evil genius driven by equal parts sadness and vengeful rage. There is a real sense of fearlessness to his performance here, playing a character that is not only conflicted and complicated, but just plain old – something that I don’t think I’ve personally seen Banderas play before. The way Ledgard carries himself, you can just feel the gravity of his experiences, the weight of his past literally pushing him down. In the other lead role, Elena Anaya as the enigmatic, almost preternaturally beautiful (we quickly find out why) Vera is a woman of alternately shocking strength and heartbreaking vulnerability. There is such intelligence and pathos to her performance that, when we discover her secret, and when we see others learning it, it literally takes your breath away. Deserving of equal credit in smaller but no less key roles are Blanca Suárez as Ledgard’s troubled daughter Norma and Jan Cornet as Vicente, a young store clerk who…gets in way over his head, let’s just leave it at that.

And through it all, Almodóvar’s visual sense is, as always, immaculate without being precious, strikingly elegant and oil-painting perfect while still somehow staying very much a lived-in and real part of the “world” of the movie. As always he fills the screen with all the right colors, tastes, tones, and warmth that make Spain look absolutely like the most beautiful place on earth…even when overflowing with madmen, criminals, psychopaths, and worse.


Posted on October 20, 2011, in Film Review and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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