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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 21.74%
Average: 4.35%
Pretty Bad: 0%
Total Crap: 4.35%

2 reviews, 11 user ratings

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Skin I Live In, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Eyes Without A. . .Uh, Never Mind."
5 stars

Although Spanish director Pedro Almodovar has been hailed as one of the key filmmakers working in the world today for close to three decades, I must confess that it has taken me a long time to warm up to his works. Oh sure, I would watch each one of his films when they would come out and while I could instantly recognize that he was an enormously gifted and original talent, there was just something about his heady cinematic stews of sex, violence, perversions of all stripes and outrageous plot developments that rubbed me the wrong way--where others celebrated the cheerfully melodramatic excesses as being in the grand tradition of Douglas Sirk, the great filmmaker who skirted the line between soap opera and legitimate drama in such classics as "All That Heaven Allows" and "Written on the Wind," I only saw a director who seemed content to allow all of his material to deteriorate into camp so as not to have to deal seriously with any of the issues raised in his narratives. And yet, even though I never really liked any of his films, I made sure to keep up with each new one over the years--partly because anyone trying to write seriously about the world of cinema needed to see them and partly because I kept hoping that whatever it was that his most passionate devotees saw in him would finally click for me and allow me to embrace his work wholeheartedly.

Things finally did click for me with the arrival of "Volver" in 2006, a film which told a story just as lurid and complex as anything Almodovar had offered up before but which did so without the overly mannered and self-conscious tone of those earlier efforts--for once, he showed that he could tell an actual story instead of a story about how he was telling a story--and with the magnificent contributions of longtime colleague/muse Penelope Cruz is the performance of her career. At first, I wondered if this happened to simply be a one-time thing--the cinematic version of a broken clock always telling the correct time at least twice a day--coupled with my not-inconsiderable affection for Cruz but then I found myself equally enraptured with his 2009 follow-up "Broken Embraces," a film which also showed him dealing with potentially over-the-top material in a refreshingly serious and straightforward manner and which was again anchored by a great turn by Cruz. The only thing that gave me pause was some grumbling I heard from a few longtime Almodovar supporters who felt that those two films were actually among his weaker efforts and lacked the audaciousness of his finest works. Was this a case of my finally getting on to Almodovar's wavelength at last or was it a case of Almodovar deliberately paring away the wild flourishes that made his work so distinctive in the first place so that dopey guys like myself could finally embrace his work, especially with Penelope Cruz as an extra (and extra-attractive) added attraction to further boost interest.?

Going into Almodovar's latest film, "The Skin I Live In," I realized that it would be the final test case as to the question of whether my view of his work had changed or not. For starters, Penelope Cruz was a no-show this time around, a big deal considering that "Volver" and "Broken Embraces" were built almost entirely around her. More significantly, while his last two films had been relatively serious-minded, this one marked Almodovar's first outright foray into the horror genre and promised to be more far out in terms of its narrative and tone than he had allowed himself to be in recent years. As it turns out, I guess I have become some kind of fan of Almodovar after all because while it admittedly doesn't reach the heights of "Volver" or "Broken Embraces" by a long shot, "The Skin I Live In" is nevertheless an agreeably depraved excursion into pure weirdness with a plot so cheerfully wild and kinky that it would seem equally at home in the finest arthouses of today as well as the sleaziest grindhouses of yore and in both cases, it definitely would have sent even the most jaded viewers reeling out into the streets after it ended looking fairly poleaxed over what they had just experienced.

Because the narrative of "The Skin I Live In" is so jam-packed with surprising twists and turns, I will be as brief and vague as possible in relating the initial phases of the plot, though those of you who wish to go into it completely unawares are advised to check out now. In the film, Banderas plays Dr. Robert Lesgard, a brilliant plastic surgeon who, equally haunted and inspired by the tragic death of his beloved wife 12 years earlier in the aftermath of a fiery car wreck, has become obsessed with developing a highly advanced form of synthetic skin utilizing a radical breakthrough in transgenic mutation involving the combination of human and animal genetic material. Because such experimentation is frowned upon by the medical community as madness, Lesgard carries out his experiments from within the confines of his lavish and remote estate which is equipped with such necessities as a fully appointed lab and operating room, a discreet housekeeper in Marilia (Marisa Paredes) and his very own test subject in Vera (Elena Anaya), a beautiful young woman who spends her days in her room doing yoga and reading while clad in nothing but a flesh-colored bodysuit. Although Lesgard's work is progressing by leaps and bounds, Vera is a little less thrilled with the arrangement--she is essentially a prisoner, her every move is constantly monitored by Lesgard and Marilia and when she attempts suicide early in the proceedings, we learn that it isn't the first time that she has attempted such a thing.

This would seem to be enough plot to fuel two or three different movies but in this case, it is all a mere backdrop to the actual plot. That arrives violently when Zeca (Roberto Alamo), a jumpy weirdo clad in a Gaultier-designed tiger suit, turns up on Lesgard's doorstep one day when the doctor is out and demands to be let in. I wouldn't dream of revealing what happens next except to mention that his arrival instigate a series of astonishing and terrifying events and revelations involving rape, murder, infidelity, secrets, lies, betrayal, suicide, forbidden lust and outright weirdness. It also inspires the revelation of another key incident in Lesgard's tragic and twisted past from six years earlier, one involving his shy but lovely daughter Norma (Ana Mena), a lavish garden party in which she finds herself succumbing to the seduction of young rake Vincente (Jan Cornet) and the tragic misunderstanding that finally pushed him over the scientific demarcation line separating "ambitious" and "mad." Somehow, all of these seemingly disparate elements manage to tie into one another in a climax that will have even those viewers expecting to see something unusual muttering "ˇBuena salsa! ˇBlimey de Gor!" out of sheer and total disbelief.

Although based, apparently quite loosely, on a novel by Thierry Jonquet, "The Skin I Live In" is clearly a Almodovar experience through and through in the way that he has taken classic movie tropes--including structural elements from Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo," bits and pieces from any number of mad scientist epics like the Georges Franju classic "Eyes Without a Face" and a generous sampling from the decidedly outré output of fellow countryman Jess Franco--and mixed them together with his own penchant for kinky sexuality, dark humor, shameless melodrama and extremely stylized surroundings into the kind of salacious cinematic stew of the kind that only he would be brave and/or foolhardy enough to even attempt in the first place. Unlike "Volver" and "Broken Embraces," both of which contained their fair share of strange elements but which were otherwise reasonably straightforward from a dramatic perspective, "The Skin I Live In" is just as flat-out insane as his earlier films but instead of using an overly mannered approach in order to distance himself from the real emotions bubbling under the candy-coated surfaces and jokey manner, he plays things relatively straight here and it is all the better for it. After all, considering the fact that this is a horror film--although one more interested in creeping out and unnerving viewers instead of making them nauseous--a silly take on the material would have been disastrous because this is not the kind of take on the genre that lends itself easily to laughter and while I suppose that he could have made it into one big joke, what he has done here is more of a challenge and, in the end, far more rewarding. (That said, it may have been exactly this cool and reserved tone that inspired the lukewarm reviews that it garnered after premiering in Cannes earlier this year but I suspect that if the film had arrived bearing the name of David Cronenberg--whose early work it most often suggest at times--it would have been hailed as genius.)

Adding immeasurably to the success of the film is the presence of Antonio Banderas, reuniting with his one-time collaborator for the first time since 1991's "Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down," in a performance that goes a long way towards keeping the film from spinning off into all directions. In the years since he last worked with Almodovar, Banderas has become an enormously popular star around the world--his turn as Puss n Boots in the otherwise dire "Shrek" sequels was so beloved that the character now has his own spin-off franchise--and it is precisely that movie star mystique that is deployed so effectively here. Face it, Dr. Lesgard is pretty much a monster through and through, especially as we get to know more about him, and in the hands of most other actors, trying to transform such a character into someone worth following into the depths of his depraved obsessions would be next to impossible. Here, Almodovar utilizes Banderas' star appeal in much the same way that Hitchcock did when he hired Jimmy Stewart to play the equally dark and twisted lead in "Vertigo"--he allows the actor's natural appeal to shine through in the early going so that by the time that the weird stuff begins kicking up in earnest, viewers have already been lured into their web and continue to stay there by virtue of Banderas' exceptional work. As for Ayana, who previously worked with Almodovar in 2004's "Talk to Her," her work is equally impressive in the way that she takes what, with the extended scenes of her lounging around in either a form-fitting flesh-colored bodysuit or nothing at all, could have easily been little more than an extended modeling job and instead turns it into an equally complex and effective turn that becomes all the more rewarding once the hidden depths of her character are revealed as well.

Dark, demented and oddly tender at its admittedly bleak center, "The Skin I Live In" is one of those films that viewers will either love or loathe in equal measure--I cannot imagine anyone coming away from something like with a "meh" reaction. Regardless of where they stand on the issue, anyone who does go to see it will come away with the sensation that they have indeed truly seen something that they won't forget for a long time, no matter how much they may want to do so. Granted, it isn't the easiest film to embrace and those who prefer their entertainment to be more on the safe and predictable side should probably give it a pass for fear that it may be a bit too much for them. However, for fans of Almodovar--those in long standing and newly minted alike--and those whose tastes are more on the adventurous side, "The Skin I Live In" is, in the end, a cut above the rest--among other things.

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originally posted: 10/21/11 11:39:37
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Festival de Cannes For more in the 2011 Festival de Cannes series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Fantastic Fest 2011 For more in the Fantastic Fest 2011 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 New York Film Festival For more in the 2011 New York Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

12/20/20 bored mom This is why European art films cause PTSD. When the plot twist was revealed, my face was D: 4 stars
12/24/19 Dr. Lao That was weird 4 stars
4/24/17 David H. Dark, beautiful, and disturbing film from Almodovar! 5 stars
2/07/17 Louise Superbly made and an intriguing plot. Hugely enjoyable. 5 stars
4/13/15 jokerass lol 1 stars
3/17/15 Langano Wild ride. 4 stars
3/02/12 Katherine Wonderful, creepy, old school Almodovar! 5 stars
12/14/11 Alisharow Very use full blog and post.i love it 5 stars
12/12/11 orpy Don't bring your kids.... 3 stars
12/09/11 Man Out Six Bucks Trippy flick explores virgin territory 4 stars
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  14-Oct-2011 (R)
  DVD: 06-Mar-2012


  DVD: 06-Mar-2012

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