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Mad Love

film_skinmovieAlmodóvar unleashes harrowing, dazzling 'Skin I Live In'

Where are moments when Pedro Almodóvar's new movie, The Skin I Live In (La Piel Que Habito) will make you squirm. It has sex and violence—often at the same time—and some very strange relationships, perverse even by Almodóvar standards. In terms of storyline, it's a weird mix of Pygmalion and Frankenstein, with echoes of vintage mad-scientist horror movies from the '30s to the '50s. (You could even make a case for this film paying a sort of bizarre homage to my favorite grade-Z '50s horror movie, The Head That Wouldn't Die).

But this is one of those rare movies that gets better and better in retrospect, as the viewer begins to appreciate the scope and intensity of its themes. Very loosely based on the hard-boiled novel, "Tarantula," by the late French author Thierry Jonquet, it becomes, in Almodóvar's expert hands, an outrageous, yet smart and compelling, meditation on gender and identity, and how much each depends on the other. Almodóvar asks: what makes us who we are inside? Is it how we look, the surface or skin on the outside? Or is there some unassailable core of identity that determines one's selfhood, no matter what?

These questions come whipped up into a typically lush and spicy Almodóvar cocktail of sex, obsession, gunplay, haunting secrets, merging personas, dubious parentage, and maternal devotion. At the center of it all is Antonio Banderas, making a welcome return to the Spanish auteur's stable of players after a 21-year hiatus. Banderas brings presence and fortitude, menace and tenderness to the role of Dr. Robert Ledgard, an eminent plastic surgeon and pioneer in the new field of "face transplants," acclaimed for his work in "toughening up" skin to make it impervious to burning and insect bites.

At his lavish estate outside the city, however, Robert is conducting a different kind of research. High above the home lab percolating in his basement, Robert keeps a nubile young woman, Vera (Elena Anaya), locked in a private room. Zipped into a synthetic, flesh-colored unitard—literally, a second skin—Vera covers her walls with drawings and slogans, crafts faceless clay sculptures in the manner of Louise Bourgeois, and practices yoga. Via a dumbwaiter and a hotline to Robert's loyal housekeeper Marilla (the always great Marisa  Paredes), Vera can have anything she wants—except her freedom.

It's unclear what Vera's relationship is to Robert; she might be a private patient or a captive, a lover or an experiment. Or all of the above. Or something else entirely. In a house decorated with large paintings of nude odalisques, Robert reclines on a couch in his room and watches Vera on a video monitor, like a TV show, zooming in and out. There are whispers in the household that Vera looks a lot like Robert's dead wife, who was burned in a car crash.

But just when we think we've got a grip on the plot, Almodóvar starts layering in the flashbacks and revelations that change everything. Complications include Marilla's lowlife son, Zeca (Roberto Álamo), who comes to the house dressed as a tiger for Carnival, Robert's fragile teenage daughter, Norma (Blanca Suarez), and Vicente (Jan Cornet), a youth who likes to party and bomb around on his motorcycle, and whose path crosses Robert's under very unfortunate circumstances.

Two prolonged rape scenes are not for the fainthearted (there's a subversive symmetry to them, in retrospect, however). Of course, there will be blood, both murder and suicide, along with a campaign of extreme retribution as shocking and harrowing as it is dazzling in its thematic brilliance. Fresh revelations are unleashed, the plot thickens, and steadfast Marilla—who has dark secrets of her own—makes portentous statements about "What a madman's love can do."film_skinilive

While the plot is typically operatic, there's less overt comedy than usual for Almodóvar. But his sense of visual composition is as acute as ever, from the motif of all those lush reclining nudes and what they might suggest (death; desire; despair), to recurring images of faces obscured by masks or helmets, or missing entirely (as in Vera's faceless clay figures)—profound metaphors for the question of true identity that fuels this wild, unsettling film.

THE SKIN I LIVE IN

(LA PIEL QUE HABITO)

★★★1/2 (out of four) Watch film trailer >>>

With Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, and Marisa Paredes. Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Rated R. 117 minutes. In Spanish with English subtitles.

Comments (1)Add Comment
...
written by Judi G., November 12, 2011
Spoiler alert for those who have not seen the film yet! I can appreciate Almodovar's venture into the horror genre. The film was certainly stylish. The rape scene with Zeca in the tiger costume certainly brought home the idea that men are beasts! I wondered if Vera's face was a close replica of Robert's deceased wife (we never saw her in her pre-burn stage). The real creepiness though was the idea that Robert would make love to Vera when he knew very well who she was (or had been) and what she had done to his daughter. I guess he was move in love with his own creation. As I watched the part where Vera was allowed out of her room and permitted to take a ride into town, I said to myself "This has got to end badly." That seemed a foolish slip-up on Robert's part and/or a device to move the story to its conclusion. I agree, Marisa Paredes is wonderful. (she often looks like a man in drag). I loved the singer in the club!

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