Friday, October 14, 2011

Mad Science

Elena Anaya in The Skin I Live In
The Skin I Live In
Directed by Pedro Almodovar
Starring Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes
Released by Sony Pictures Classics; opened October 14, 2011

In his stylish psychological thriller-cum-horror film The Skin I Live In--which omits any shred of credible psychology--Pedro Almodovar introduces his mad scientist, Robert Ledgard, as a plastic surgeon who’s invented a new skin impermeable to burns or disease.

The film begins forebodingly with Doctor Robert telling stunned colleagues about his discovery, insisting that he hasn’t been experimenting on humans. We know better, of course: back at his home, a gorgeous prison-like mansion, is guinea pig Vera, a beautiful young woman locked in a large room, whose connection to the outside world consists of meals and books sent via dumbwaiter by Robert’s faithful, long-suffering servant Marilia, who along with Robert spies on Vera thanks to close-circuit cameras and monitors (including a life-size one which makes it seem Robert watches Vera on a movie screen, a typical Almodovar trope).

While Robert works on Vera’s new skin, she tries escaping but is returned to confinement by his trusty pistol (which becomes an improbably necessary weapon again later). Just who is Vera and why has she submitted to the brilliant doctor, who’s still grieving the loss of his wife in an horrific car accident a few years before? And what secret does Marilia, who does Robert’s bidding unquestioningly, hide?

Almodovar eventually explains everything over the course of two wearying hours, but it’s impossible to discuss the specifics of the increasingly bizarre plot and characters without spoiling it for viewers. Suffice it to say that Vera’s presence is related to Vicente, a young man who drugged and raped Robert’s teenage daughter Norma at a wedding six years earlier, and Robert’s skin experiment is only the tip of a very convoluted iceberg that includes a revenge vaginoplasty (there’s a phrase I never thought I’d write).

Appreciating the freak show that is The Skin I Live In depends on the viewer’s tolerance for coincidence and belabored plot twists, like the sudden appearance of Marilia’s criminal son Zeca in a clown-ish disguise at Robert’s home (conveniently when the doctor is away). Aside from explaining the connection between Zeca, Robert and Robert’s dead wife (whom Vera resembles, we also discover, and which Zeca takes sexual advantage of), the sequence is also important for moving the plot both forward and backward: it’s the trigger for several flashbacks that fill out the back stories of the characters and their relationships with one another, including Robert and Vera's improbable physical and emotional closeness.

There is an undeniable artfulness to Almodovar’s clever structure: by the time the movie’s final half-hour rolls around and it’s explained who Vera really is, it’s too late to object to some pretty blatant holes in both plot and characterization. Then there’s the ending, in which a drug addict/rapist is tearfully reunited with a worried family member: it’s a deviously devised but unsatisfying attempt to pull one last rug out from under viewers.

The movie’s frenzied atmosphere is echoed in Alberto Iglesias’ alternatingly haunting and heaving music, Jose Luis Alcaine’s opulent photography, Jose Salcedo’s showy editing and, most of all, Antxon Gomez’s baroque art direction: Robert’s home is filled with artworks, featuring a wall-size copy of Titian’s masterpiece Venus of Urbino (the real painting is in Florence’s Uffizi gallery), which Almodovar later parallels with a striking shot of a nude, reclining Vera. Such overwhelming artifice, both visually and aurally, threatens to capsize Almodovar’s slender melodrama.

Antonio Banderas suffers nobly as Robert, while Elena Anaya has little to do except look fabulous as Vera: the actress is reminiscent of another gorgeous Almodovar femme fatale from his early years, Victoria Abril, who was more feminine than the boyish-looking Anaya (when the movie’s big twist is revealed, one realizes that important distinction). It’s worth noting that Banderas starred with Abril in Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down, the film which introduced the pair to international audiences. As Marilia, the reliable Marisa Parades is yet another link to Almodovar’s past glories.

It’s almost impossible to square the director of The Skin I Live In and other slick comedy-dramas like Broken Embraces, Volver and Talk to Her with such delightfully ramshackle mid-‘80s efforts as Matador, Law of Desire and Dark Habits. Although the more recent films are quality examples of dazzling craft, I prefer, like the aliens in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, “the early, funny ones.”

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