November 15, 2012 Film Reviews

Some films have the peculiar effect of staying with you long after the final credits have rolled, enveloping you like an article of clothing.

A Pedro Almodóvar film is a lavish garment, where the scenery, characters, colours, textures and sounds are all threads meticulously arranged and interwoven to create an intricate, nuanced fable that enrobes you – awkwardly but snugly.

In his latest outing The Skin I Live In (2011), the Spanish auteur delivers a profound, haunting and, at times, astounding drama on the various guises that individuals construct, assume and, in some cases, are coerced to inhabit (from the donning of synthetic skin, costumes and couture to the performance of social roles and gender conventions, and the tragic but irrevocable development of obsessions and neuroses).

Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) is a prodigious plastic surgeon who has cultivated a revolutionary form of synthetic skin that is resistant to damage and burning. Working from his estate, which also serves as the facility for his medical research and operations, he tests the fruits of his experiments on Vera (Elena Anaya), a mysterious woman who he has confined to a room that is closely monitored by himself and his trusting servant Marilla (Marisa Paredes). This cosy, reclusive, private universe is disturbed by the appearance of a mysterious, costumed visitor whose past brings the lives of these characters into disarray.

Loosely based on Thierry Jonquet’s book Tarantula (1995), the narrative of The Skin I Live In unfolds like the chapters of a grim novel, with Almodóvar describing the film as ‘a horror story without screams or frights’. Fittingly, the sumptuous, textured screenplay cunningly and chillingly oscillates from the past to the present to disclose the manifold layers of events, incidents, accidents, encounters and relations that have ensconced these characters in the confines of the estate and which chart the course of their destinies.

Almodóvar’s camera isolates the different types of dressing and covering that preoccupy the activities and obsessions of his characters. We observe Vera tearing and cutting cotton, cloth and hessian, and subsequently gluing them on sculpted busts (inspired by the patchy, grotesque, mummy-like sculptures of Louise Bourgeois). Likewise, we witness Robert cultivate, stretch, apply and tailor synthetic skin initially to a mannequin and then to the live, exposed flesh of his experimental subject, Vera).

This preoccupation with sheathing, dressing and modifying the body works on another level, for Almodóvar here is also concerned with not only the malleability and durability of synthetic skin, but also with the elasticity and resilience of subjectivity and gender, their openness to transformation and the slow, gradual redrawing and redefining of their parameters and boundaries. In Almodóvar’s universe, history, memory, sex, gender and subjectivity are never rigid and concrete but in flux, in transition and (to borrow a term from the film), susceptible to transgenesis.

In The Skin I Live In, the pursuit of desire and the longing for freedom require nothing less than the surgical removal of entrenched histories and memories and the supplementary grafting of alternative possibilities and personas. But in doing so, the final result is not one that you expect but something foreign, unfamiliar and, formidably, skin deep.

– Dr. Varga Hosseini