Thursday, 22 September 2011

The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito)

Pedro Almodovar is reunited with Antonio Banderas in the Spanish auteur's latest filmic offering.

Banderas plays a plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard, who after suffering the death of his wife from burns sustained in a car crash, posits the idea of a transgenic skin (fusing human and pig genes).  Unbeknowst to his colleagues, who warn him off of doing the idea, he is testing the skin on Vera, a young woman he holds captive in his mansion El Cigarral outside of the city Toledo.

Vera can only communicate via the intercom installed in her room, Robert who is slowly becoming more and more infatuated with her watches from the next room by way of a television screen (which might as well be a two-way mirror). 

Robert is helped by his mother Marilia (Almodovar stalwart, Marisa Paredes), whose other son Zeca arrives and wrecks havoc on the house by raping Vera and ending up shot by Robert.  It is not spoiling the film for you by saying this, as the rape begins a flashback that explains how all these people came to be at this precise moment.

We flashback six years to a private party where Robert attends with his unhinged daughter Norma, Norma is apparently raped by a young Vicente.  Norma dies shortly afterwards and as an act of revenge, Robert kidnaps Vicente.

Almodovar is clear in indicating that Vicente is a nice young gentleman, confused more by his feelings for the attractive lesbian who works in his mother's clothes shop.  What follows however, is a typical Almodovar storyline - that mixture of soap opera melodrama with highbrow stylistics.

This recently has been a criticism of Almodovar; that brand of style over substance.  Whereas, Volver and Talk to Her can be considered stylistic, they were nevertheless films of great substance and yet oddly full of restraint, something Almodovar is not known for.

In this instance, the auteur throws caution to the wind employing an adaptation of Tarantula by Thierry Jonquet, but only the basis of a surgeon using his skills to exact a vigilante revenge.  Banderas as Ledgard is cast against type as the evil/mad doctor; who is brilliantly skilled yet twisted in his interpretation of ethics and code of conduct.  Banderas is get that bit older now, so it is good to see him taking on roles of dramatic purpose that can stretch his evident acting chops and away from those matinee idol roles of the mid to late 1990s. 

Banderas is the centre of the film, holding our attention from the outset as we watch him experimenting in his homebound laboratory.  Ledgard is a mixture of all mad doctors - Dr.Moreau, the doctor from Franju's Eyes Without a Face and even a hint of James Stewart's Scotty from Hitchcock's Vertigo - that clinical determination mixed with personal obsession.

The other gripping presence is that of Elena Anaya as Vera, who in her yoga posturing and one piece suit, is that luminous beauty Almodovar so often finds in his films following in the footsteps of Carmen Maura and Penelope Cruz.

In spite of all the fine acting, for once the person who falls short is Almodovar himself as he for once becomes a victim of his own stylistic impulses.  The story becomes secondary, even the major plot twist so important a piece of narrative detail leaves the audience more bewildered and astounded at the sheer improbability of it all.  Which is a shame because there are artistic flushes you would expect from Almodovar, and seeing Banderas act with such lustre in his native tongue is always better than seeing him voice an animated feline.

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