Another look at depth of beauty
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Oct 21, 2011
I'll say one thing for "The Skin I Live In," Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar's ambitious, crazy, even a-little-bit-infuriating new film: I did not see it coming.
Yes, there's a twist, and it's a doozy - simultaneously loopy and deep. The film almost guarantees lively post-screening conversation. Almodovar throws so much into the stew pot here - sci-fi thriller, melodrama, horror film, love story, comedy, surreal meditation on the nature of truth and art - that the flavors sometimes overwhelm each other. It may take a day or two before you figure out whether you actually like it. You could spend the first 24 hours merely trying to figure out what it is you just saw.
When it opens, in an only slightly futuristic 2012, cosmetic surgeon Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) is living on a gated estate with an imprisoned young beauty (Elena Anaya) he has been using as a human guinea pig in the experimental development of a transgenic skin. Made from the DNA of a pig, it's tougher than a human epidermis, with resistance to flames and mosquito bites.
So far so good. This could be interesting, despite the silliness of the premise.
Now, bear in mind that what you just read has pretty much nothing to do with the movie that follows. Barely a few minutes in, Robert is being scolded by a supervisor for the ethical impropriety of his research. For the most part, it doesn't come up again.
What does come up is the sudden appearance of a rapist in a tiger costume (Roberto Alamo), who turns out to be the son of Robert's almost creepily loyal housekeeper, Marilia (Marisa Paredes). She's like "Young Frankenstein's" Frau Blucher, minus the horses.
Other unexpected relationships between the main characters will be revealed, but not before the film jumps backward six years. It's a jarring flashback - almost a reset of the whole movie - and for a while it feels as if Almodovar has completely lost control. Brand new characters are introduced, out of the blue: a young, pill-popping clerk in a secondhand clothing store (Jan Cornet); his lesbian co-worker (Barbara Lennie); and Robert's teenage daughter (Blanca Suarez), who suffers from an acute form of social anxiety.
What the heck?
Don't worry. Almodovar's hand is on the wheel. "The Skin I Live In" may be doing 90 mph, and taking hairpin turns on two wheels, but it knows where it's going.
Exactly where that might be is a little harder to say, especially without destroying the surprise. There's a powerful element of allegory and indirection in "Skin." Robert calls the mysterious woman with the pig hide "Vera," which means "true" in Spanish. But she isn't all that she appears to be, for reasons that will only slowly reveal themselves, and which have little to do with her skin.
Vera spends her days in a gilded cage - an opulent suite of rooms under the watchful eyes of several video cameras - making art in the style of sculptor Louise Bourgeois, whose work trafficked in images of physical mutilation.
But Vera is as much Robert's artistic creation as his prisoner. Almodovar seems to be saying something about art - including moviemaking - but the message isn't entirely clear. Something about the paradoxical nature of the creative genius: beauty and insanity at war with each other.
On the other hand, "Skin" is also a straight-ahead horror film. (Call it "The Human Centipede" for smart people.) Almodovar doesn't just want to scare us, or freak us out, though the movie does both, as well as make us laugh, if only nervously. Mostly, Almodovar wants to make us think.
Only about the nature of identity, lies, healing, punishment, obsession and grief.
"The Skin I Live In" is a dish of almost too many ingredients. Gorgeously art-directed and photographed, and with solid acting all around, it's a spicy meal that nevertheless goes down with deceptive ease, thanks to the assured touch of a master chef.
It may leave you with heartburn, but it sure as heck won't leave you hungry.
Contains nudity, sex, violence, obscenity and drug use. In Spanish with English subtitles.