Monday, 29 August 2011

REVIEW: The Skin I Live In (La Piel Que Habito)

Dir.: Pedro Almodóvar
With: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya

It gives me an absolute pleasure to write about this film. I’ll start with the posters. There are two:

The first one is one of the most beautiful film posters designed for a modern film that I have ever seen. It does not scream ‘come watch me!’ to me, instead it reminds me of an old anatomical folio where the illustrations were made by hand and the margins were adorned with flowers and birds. It also draws a link to the image of Marsyas, a satyr who lost a bet to Apollo and was flayed alive as a punishment. Classically, he is portrayed with visible muscles and insides, holding his skin as one would hold a coat – over one’s arm. The image of a skinless person is interesting when juxtaposed to the film’s title “The Skin I Live In” – where is the skin that the person lives in gone? What does the skin signify for a person’s life? How important is the skin and does it make up the person? All these questions are fittingly raised in the film as well.

The second poster is more traditional, focusing on the protagonist’s faces. The girl in a mask, looking tense and uncomfortable and Antonio Banderas, looming over her, menacing. Notice the contrast between their skins – hers is white, smooth and poreless. His is darker, shiny and weathered. Both posters deliver a crystal-clear message – the film you are about to see will be uncomfortable, tense and theatrical.

The themes addressed in “The Skin I Live In” can be described as the best of Almodóvar: there is obsession, motherly care, sex, revenge and insanity. It is also a classic tale of a mad scientist, in the style of Dr Frankenstein and Dr Moreau. Antonio Banderas is pitch-perfect as Dr Robert Ledgard, a brilliant plastic surgeon who is extremely wealthy, elegant and powerful. He lives in a secluded villa with his own private operation theatre outside Toledo. There is one special room in the house with one special patient – Vera, played by Elena Anaya. Their relationship is unclear at first – Ledgard appears to be carrying out experiments on Vera’s skin, however, she seems rather willing to succumb to all the procedures. The inevitable question rises – who is she? Her daily existence is quite dull, she practises yoga in the confinement of her room, she creates cloth figurines in the style of Louise Bourgeois and tries to seduce Ledgard whenever he is in the room. Who would possibly wish for such a life? Is she a prisoner or is she there out of her own accord? Did Ledgard bring her there by force or is he doing her a favour?

The plot is dense and keeps dashing back and forth in time, so sit tightly and try not to miss a thing. Now that I look back, there were plenty of red herrings in the beginning of the film, pointing out to who Vera could possibly be. Her identity is not only the key answer to the many questions raised by the plot, but is also the central theme of the whole film. What makes people who they are? Is it just our appearance? Can someone manipulate your “soul” to create a perfect being? What about sexuality – is it stable or fluid? I feel it is perilous to say anything on top of this about the plot for the risk of ruining it for you.

The cinematography was absolutely beautiful. The rich red from the poster is everywhere in the film – it is literally drenched in sex. Violence and sex are constantly juxtaposed in the film, sometimes infusing into one. Guns are aplenty and nudity runs amok. The paintings hanging on the walls of Ledgard’s villa are cheeky metaphors for Vera and the doctor’s relationship. ‘Venus of Urbino’ is mirrored by Vera herself on her draped bed. The soundtrack was beautiful but not overpowering.

It was refreshing to see Antonio Banderas cast in an unusual role – his accent and his looks limit his range in Hollywood to Latin lovers and southern avengers. Here he is enigmatic, reserved and extremely dangerous, much like a vampire. His feelings towards Vera are unclear, there is the Pygmalion element of the creator desiring his creation, the master-slave dynamic and also a tiny hint of the Stockholm syndrome.

Overall, this is a grotesque and absurd story that is enchanting and repulsive at the same time. If films had a smell, this one would be a difficult to bear, sweet, muscusy one, infused with flowery scents of southern Spain.

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