The Skin I live In (La piel que habito) Pedro Almodovar, 2011

For his 18th feature film, Pedro Almodovar moves away from the female-centric stories of his previous films, into a more ramped-up, melodramatic tale comprising elements of Science-Fiction and Grand Guignol horror.

The Skin I Live In features one-time Almodovar stalwart, Antonio Banderas as Dr Robert Ledgard, a brilliant but unhinged plastic surgeon who is developing a new type of skin; made through a process of cloning and combining animal (in this case pig hide) and human skin to form a new hybrid. Ledgard is operating on a beautiful female captive, Vera (Elena Anaya) who may or may not be his wife, badly burned years earlier in a horrific car crash.

It’s difficult to discuss the film’s storyline without giving away major plot spoilers; suffice it to say that the far-fetched fantastical story, luckily, takes 2nd place to the film’s ravishing mise-en-scene. Other reviewers have criticised the film’s lack of emotional depth, but to me this is a (almost literally) clinical film all about surface sheen and superficiality. Almodovar attempts some psychological depth by showing Vera passing the time reading some very tasteful literature (Alice Munroe for one), and recreating works by Louise Bourgeois on the walls of her room; but, apart from being utilised to state the obvious (the Bourgeois work referenced is Femmes Maison– concerning a woman trapped in/by a house) there isn’t much room to delve deeper into these additions.

The rather cluttered storyline doesn’t detract, however, from Almodovar’s images, which are the best things about the film. Shots are beautifully composed;cool and elegant, with a gorgeous colour palette washing over the high contrast images. The score too, by Almodovar regular Alberto Iglesias, serves to add to the sense of heightened glamour.  In storyline and look, the film strongly references Hitchcock’s Vertigo, while the “mad doctor” scenario calls to mind Georges Franju’s classic Eyes Without A Face, which I’ve written about before. In Banderas too, Almodovar has a charismatic leading man; turning in a strong, assured performance while perfectly fitting the bill as the handsome, suave, yet creepy Dr Ledgard.

There is also a fitting contrast between Banderas’ middle-aged, lined features; those of Marilia (Marisa Paredes), his older, aged housekeeper and Vera’s smooth, blemish-free skin. In her we see no sign of the mortality which afflicts the other two, as her super-skin is resistant to ageing, heat, and even mosquito bites. This is still an Almodovar film though and he manages to imbue the film with his familiar themes – sexuality, voyeurism, transsexualism and transgender issues all play a part.

Like Doctor Frankenstein’s man-made Creature, this particular monster may be lacking a heart, but it is only ever concerned with surface appearance anyway.  While it may mark something of a departure for Almodovar, he reminds us of his own earlier films too; as elements of both Bad Education and Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down! are reflected in the super-shiny new skin of this one.

The Skin I Live In is on general release.

You can watch the trailer here

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Treacle Jr. (Jamie Thraves, 2010)

While his previous day job involved making acclaimed music video’s for the likes of Blur, Radiohead and The Verve; Jamie Thraves seems something of a neglected talent when it comes to feature film-making. Treacle Jr is his second film, following The Low Down, made in 2000 and also starring Aidan Gillen.  In 2006, that film was included in a list of “50 Lost Movie Classics” (at No. 18 no less) by the esteemed Observer film critic and writer, Phillip French.

In Treacle Jr Tom Fisher plays Tom; a forty-something married man with a new baby, a car and a house in the suburbs, who ups and leaves everything behind one day, seemingly for no apparent reason. Tom cuts up his bank cards, pockets the few remaining bank notes he has and takes to sleeping in doorways. As a result of an incident one night, following a fracas with some yobs in a public park, Tom ends up down the local A&E where he bumps into Aidan (Aidan Gillen). Aidan is a man with a child-like innocence, who has some slight mental health issues, but is otherwise relatively “normal”; but in Aiden’s world, “normal” ain’t such an easy thing to be.

The story unfolds in mostly episodic bursts as the pair end up hanging out together and Tom comes to rely on Aidan’s friendship and hospitality. Aidan has his own council flat, albeit shared with a bullying and untrustworthy “girlfriend”, Linda (Riann Steele).  After some unsuccessful attempts at sleeping rough, Tom comes to spend more and more time at Aidan’s, and a bond of sorts grows between the two men. Tom’s good nature sees how Aidan’s vulnerability can be easily abused, and he becomes a kind of protector to Aidan.

Aidan Gillen appears to have invested his character with the attributes and personal history of real-life “Master of the Universe” Aidan Walsh. Walsh was an eccentric, but well regarded figure on the Dublin music scene of the 1980s, with connections to bands as diverse as The Golden Horde, The Virgin Prunes and U2.  While taking nothing away from his co-star, Aidan Gillen’s performance throughout the film is nothing short of inspired and mesmeric.  He is an assured and charismatic performer, who turns the dial up to 11 for his portrayal here. Where, in other hands, there could be a danger of making the character nothing but a collection of quirks and tics, Gillen makes Aidan a fully fledged, living, breathing character with real depth and feeling; and who wins over the audience, right from his first scene.

Thraves also deserves credit for hanging back and letting his actors and the material breathe; though his cinema-verite style of shooting suits the material and makes for an almost documentary feel at times.  I wondered how much was scripted and how much was the actors’ contribution (especially in Gillen’s case), as scenes felt almost improvised at times. It would be a shame to see this film ignored as his previous feature was, as there is an undeniable talent at work here, which deserves much wider recognition.

Treacle Jr is at the Irish Film Institute until September 1st.

You can see the trailer here

Coppola’s Twixt and Bruce Dern!

As you can read here, Francis Ford Coppola returns with an interesting idea to tour his new film, Twixt, and present a different, live edit each night. It looks like it might be worth a look. There’s a trailer at the above link, but what got my attention in it was the appearance of the wonderful Bruce Dern, star of King of Marvin Gardens and Silent Running, among others.  I have no idea what his last film was, or how long it’s been since he was even in one, but it’s fantastic to see him onscreen again. He is one of my favourite character actors ever. Here he is in The King of Marvin Gardens, along with John P Ryan – great stuff.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sEpNLVI6jFQ