The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito)
Directed by: Pedro Almodovar
Written by: Pedro Almodovar (screenplay), Thierry Jonquet (book)
Starring: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes, Blanca Suarez, Jan Cornet
I’m unabashedly honest about my shortcomings, and I’ll freely admit I’ve never been a huge fan of Pedro Almodóvar’s films. Go ahead and slap my wrist, I deserve it. I haven’t tried that many, but I have never been able to get fully immersed in one of his films, until now. Almodóvar slithers into a dreamy tale of horror, revenge, obsession and betrayal with the superb The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito). It’s exquisitely depraved.
Antonio Banderas plays Robert, a wealthy surgeon who lives on a sprawling estate equipped with its own surgical treatment room. There’s also an observation room that houses a mysterious woman (Vera, played by Elena Anaya) clad in a nude body stocking. Robert, you see, has been trying to formulate the ultimate prosthetic skin, a natural barrier impervious to puncture and burning. He has been obsessed with it since his wife died after being horribly burned.
Vera, the woman in the room, is Robert’s medical muse; initially the recipient and eventually the inspiration for his bizarre medical fantasies. The crux of the story revolves around how and why Vera ended up in that unfortunate position. A fractured timeline offers up little pieces of a gruesome puzzle that is slowly put together by the viewer as the film unfolds. Robert and Vera are the principle players, but Richard’s dutiful servant Marilia (Marisa Paredes), his daughter Norma (Blanca Suarez) and a young man named Vicente (Jan Cornet) all play pivotal roles as the puzzle comes together. When the film starts to stray from these characters (a bizarre carnival worker dressed in a cat costume shows up for prolonged scene), it begins to falter, fortunately there are not too many of these unnecessary diversions.
It’s exciting to see a master use his talent on such twisted fare; in a less skilled director’s hands this would have been merely a notch above Human Centipede, and other exploitative films. However, Almodóvar somehow creates a beautiful film out of the reprehensible subject matter. His trademark use of color is evident in the film, most notably deep crimson red, but bright jewel tones of green and purple keep weaving through the film’s tapestry as well. In contrast, the walls, scrubs, masks and gowns of the surgery room are a monochrome hospital green. The film is so gorgeous that I am certain it would stand up to a silent viewing.
Banderas regularly worked with Almodóvar about twenty years ago. This is their first collaboration in as many years, and it looks effortless. Banderas embodies the troubled genius with ease; you completely forget whom you are watching on the screen. He evokes sympathy one moment and outrage the next. Anaya (a popular Spanish actress) is stunning as Vera, who runs the gamut of emotions. She is frightened and traumatized one moment, coquettish the next. And hats off to any woman who can wear a nude cat suit and look amazing. An excellent score by Alberto Iglesias complements the escalating psychological tension.
The Skin I Live In was adapted from “Tarantula”, a novel by Thierry Jonquet, and the story is a trip. Almodóvar has triumphed in bringing us one of those films in which the most horrifying elements reside in our own head. There is little on-screen gore, as the horror is much more of the psychological variety. Isn’t that the best kind? – Shannon