Friday, 16 September 2011

The Skin I Live In (La Piel que Habito) (2011)

The dressmaker and the mannequin

Image: Sony Pictures Classics

For his latest, legendary Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar has reteamed with Antonio Banderas for the first time since 1990’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!. On the surface it looks like the auteur has made a horror film, and we were curious to see what that would look like.

Robert Ledgard (Banderas) is a surgeon working on a new type of highly durable, burn-resistant skin. Vera (Elena Anaya) is imprisoned in his home, locked in the room next to his, and serves as the subject of his experiments. As the film unfolds, we slowly learn more about the relationship between Vera and Robert, and what terrible events led them to this point.

Art-house and world cinema fans who normally shy away from scary movies can rest easy. While The Skin I Live In is certainly rooted in the horror genre, and we would describe it as a horror film, it’s very much a film about relationships and personal trauma, rather than blood, guts, and scares. Based on the novel Tarantula by Thierry Jonquet, from the basic plot synopsis and the film’s advertising campaign, the touchstone for the film would be the classic French horror Eyes without a Face, in which a professor kidnaps young women to steal their faces for his disfigured daughter. But the similarities don’t go far beyond that.

The most striking part of the film is the dynamic between Robert and Vera. Almodóvar takes his time revealing to the audience exactly who Vera is and how she got there, dropping teasing hints along the way. Robert’s housekeeper Marilia (Marisa Paredes) clearly doesn’t trust her, and makes comments about how “history repeats itself”. Robert tries to maintain a professional distance, keeping her locked in her room, but watches security camera footage of her on a screen so large it covers most of his bedroom wall.

The film’s core themes are voyeurism, identity, and grief. None of these are especially out of the ordinary for an Almodóvar film, although visually it seems a little more controlled than some of his efforts. There are exceptions, such as the sequence with the man in the tiger suit (it will make sense when you see it). It’s almost as if the filmmaker decided that the story was outlandish enough that any visual fireworks were unnecessary.

It’s great to see Banderas in a good art-house film, and he plays against type very nicely as the frosty, grieving Robert. The star of the film is undoubtedly Anaya (Mesrine), who gives a fiercely intelligent and emotional performance. There’s also an excellent turn from Paredes (The Devil’s Backbone) as the motherly housekeeper with secrets of her own. 

It’s a little (and unexpectedly) cold, but there’s a lot to admire. The performances are superb, the set-design outstanding, and as the story develops you will find yourself drawn into this strange tale.

Verdict: Stylish horror for the art-house crowd. Anaya is superb and the characters and their strange, dark lives are engrossing.



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