Controversial director Pedro Almodovar pays homage to the mad scientist genre in a tale of revenge, seduction and hubris in The Skin I Live in based on Thierry Jonquet’s novel “Tarantula”.
More emotionally graphic than visually, this R-rated horror feature seems to harken back to 50’s mad scientist films. Yes, there’s a bit of Dr. Frankenstein peeking around the corner, but as always, Almodovar adds spices from his favorite cinematic dishes. Antonio Banderas plays the suave plastic surgeon Dr. Robert Ledgard who is doing cutting edge research in secret. As we’re introduced to the narrow driveway to his palatial estate, we find a nurse (Marisa Paredes) attending to the home’s other occupant, a beautiful woman named Vera (Elena Anaya) .
After watching her perform Yoga with an eerie intensity, she’s revealed not only to be his patient, but also his guinea pig. Ledgard has created a groundbreaking artificial skin that’s sensitive to the touch, but impervious to extreme heat. Skin’s not the only thing the surgeon has been slicing and dicing. It turns out he’s cut some legal and moral corners to get to the final result. His tenuous relationship with his patient reaches a breaking point when a man dressed as a tiger arrives and causes everyone’s lives to spiral downward.
The graphic nature and images of The Skin I Live In has caused headlines and more than one viewer to walk out of a film festival screening. Nonetheless, you know when dealing with a director like Almodovar that it’s just the cost of doing business. Despite the pretty people in front of the camera, there’s some pretty dark themes at work. From the metaphorical to the existential, skin is a topic none of the characters can escape. It binds the characters as they deal with the causes and aftermath of tragedies ranging from rape to murder to suicide. “Skin’ is equal parts murder mystery and horror film, borrowing elements of Hitchcock with a dash of noir. The screen becomes a prison as the director intentionally keeps us in confined spaces beginning with the drive to Ledgard’s estate, El Cigarral. Even flashbacks explaining each character’s backstory has a haunting, claustrophobic feel.
Banderas may be drowned out at the box office by his sword carrying feline alter-ego next week, but he more than keeps his head above water in “Shin”. He travels emotional minefields without batting an eyelash no matter if it’s losing a deal or a lover. The good doctor is only good on his terms. His Ledgard is cold and calculating as he plays god with anyone who steps on his property, until he learns that being god is truly a full time job. Almodovar admits that being a director allows you to play god in your own universe and nowhere is it more apparent than in this psychological exercise. From the care it took to set up shots that appear myopic even when there are dancers in a ballroom to the excellent casting of Marisa Paredes as Marilia. She’s wise as only a mother can be and as ruthless as a mother feels she should be to protect her son. Roberto Alamo is the tiger clad catalyst that doesn’t just stir the pot, but causes it to scald everyone in the process. His Zeca will make you cringe and cheer within seconds of each other. The joy in these characters is that you never know who to root for since none embrace the hero title and all or worthy of the opposite to what degree is where the real debate is.
Without giving away spoilers, I’ll let you know that the twists and turns will have you talking about “The Skin I Live In” whether you loved it for it’s excellent performances or were appalled by it’s brutality and misogynistic content. In a summer full of popcorn movies that don’t stay with you past the end credits, Almodovar should be commended for a movie that lingers and that may ultimately be what the doctor ordered.
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