Film Review: The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito) (2011)

Here's how you know whether or not The Skin I Live In will appeal to you. Look at the following statement and gauge your reaction. Writer/Director Pedro Almodovar riffs on classic horror film Eyes Without a Face, translating the action to psycho-sexual politics and gene therapy. Keep your reaction in mind as you go through this review. Antonio Banderas takes on the role of Robert Ledgard, a surgeon running a boutique medical clinic from his mansion. He lives with his main housekeeper Marilla (Marisa Paredes) and a patient named Vera (Elena Anaya). Vera wears nude body compression garments because of the surgeries Robert Ledgard is performing on her. The insight you get from his lectures--how the successful grafting of cadaver faces onto living faces led to experimentation with genetically spliced flesh on small mammals--should give you an idea of Ledgard's role. He is Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyl hidden behind the charisma of Count Dracula.

However, as the film goes on, what you think is the actual plot of the film becomes as relevant to the story as Marion Crane's robbery is to Psycho. The narrative is always shifting to new and unexpected places. The overarching influence is Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face. From the near-imprisonment of young Vera to the layout of the mansion to the circling group of fellow-scientists convinced something is wrong at the Ledgard estate, the film's brand new story (adapted from Thierry Jonquet's novel) is balanced on the visual structure and narrative beats of the classic 1960 chiller. The difference is not one of possibility but of scientific fact. The facial transplants predicted in Eyes Without a Face are a scientific reality. Otherwise, the films could take place at the same time and be equally plausible and compelling.

Almodovar's film is stylish. That's really the only way to describe it. From the enormous paintings and elaborate chandeliers decorating the mansion to the all stainless steel operating room and crisp white scrubs, no visual image is an accident. Even the look of the cast is carefully selected for mood and narrative purposes. This film is controlled visually to allow the wilder story to wander freely.

If there is a flaw to the film, it is that it reins in the bizarre narrative too much going into a twist that some will find shocking. I didn't solely because of my usual affinity for horror. How unfortunate that a horrid version of this same story was rushed to English language markets as a cheap piece of direct to VOD/DVD exploitation.

But I digress. When the film really needs to be pushing the insanity of the characters and the narrow-minded visions of purpose, it pulls back. Every beat of the story is played in full sight of the audience. Even if we don't see this surgery or that practice, it's explained. Its too much exposition following what was a much more nuanced and expressive form of filmmaking in the first half.

This is not to say that the film is empty by any stretch of the imagination. It's full-bodied and disturbing in all the right ways. Almodovar went with a very laser-focused shift in tone to reflect the narrative as one character sees it, which in turn simplifies (and masks) what is happening outside of a specific series of events.

If Almodovar turning a disturbing horror film into a deeply psychological play on gender roles and medical integrity sounds interesting, you won't be disappointed. The challenge comes in anticipating a response from someone who has no knowledge of Almodovar or Eyes Without a Face. I wonder if the meaning and intention of this film is too wrapped up in knowledge of both styles to ever translate to a wider audience.

Rating: 6/10

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

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