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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