The Skin I Live In (2011)
Haven’t crossed my legs this hard since Teeth.
The Skin I Live In is about a brilliant surgeon who develops a genetically enhanced, fire-proof flesh after his wife gets in a car crash that leaves her burned from head to toe. Horrified by the way she looks, she goes ahead and offs herself, leaving the surgeon very, very sad. The test subject for his experiment is a beautiful woman he keeps locked in his house who bears a striking resemblance to his late wife. As his testing comes to an end, he promises her freedom at the risk of her revealing his secret operation to the world. But when the son of his housemaid shows up out of the blue and puts everyone’s lives in jeopardy, the surgeon is forced to take matters into his own hands.
So talk about a change of pace for writer/director Pedro Almodovar. Last time I checked, this is a guy who made a name for himself by celebrating and empowering women in film, not a guy who thought Buffalo Bill was really misunderstood and decided to make a movie to clear his good name. But more than anything – yes, even Antonio – that’s what’s so immediately intriguing about this movie: Pedro Almadovar’s first stab at a horror/thriller. I don’t know what caused this, maybe he was trading emails with Kevin Smith, but for a film maker who’s been all drama, all the time for Godknowshowlong, he pulls this off quite well…eventually.
The reason for that ellipses there is because this starts out pretty darn shaky. I’m all for movies that don’t give you much insight as to what the hell is going on as a way to make you listen up, but this was just odd. By the end of the first Act, you’ll get the basics: Antonio’s a nutjob widower, he’s keeping this mysterious gal prisoner, he shouldn’t be doing that (let alone be splicing together pig and human DNA,) and the housemaid’s in on it, too. It works well in establishing what kind of people we’re dealing with here and it creates a solid foundation for the surplus of reveals that come to light down the road. But then the housemaid’s son shows up and the whole thing turns into a Spanish soap opera. Even with the weak explanation as to why he’s there and why he’s important, nothing about him arriving at the front door in a spandex lion costume struck me as a logical direction to take the story in. Then he gets inside, starts being a lowlife, and kicks off a big to-do filled with sex, violence, and every Spanish soap opera fan’s favorite thing in the world…betrayal! Dios mio!
It’s pretty bizarre, I didn’t know what the hell to make of it.
And then, just as things seem like they’re coming together some ten minutes later, the story suddenly flashbacks to six years prior, seemingly abandoning everything that just happened in the last half-hour so that we can follow along with a brand new set of protagonists we’ve never met. I almost gave up at that point. Was not in the mood to pull a Chungking Express and watch two different movies in the same movie.
The good thing is that it does get better, a lot better actually. I can’t really say much because the reason this movie recovers as well as it does is due entirely due to a turning point that made everyone in the theater react in a chorus of, “Holy-effing-shit.” Don’t bother guessing, there’s no way you’ll get it. The only thing I will say is that it’s at this very moment that things start making sense and the plot begins moving in a direction that you can get behind. In hindsight, I completely understand why Almodovar structured this the way he did, but in real-time, it’s not without its problems. Alright, not saying anything more on the matter, you can thank me later.
But for a genre that’s very much out of his comfort zone, it’s interesting how this still manages to feel like a natural progression for Almodovar. Even though it’s be driven by a lunatic who treats his women like most would treat a pet hamster, a lot of the usual Almodovar themes are here. The woman in question, Vera, is one tough cookie who’s got Antonio wrapped around her finger and you’ll be rooting for her twice as much by the end was you will be at the start. From how many times she gets naked to how many different people get boinked, it’s also an extremely sexual movie that feels as natural as it does aggressive. If you’ve seen an Almodovar movie before, this should all sound pretty familiar, and since these are all aspects that make his movies soar, it’s cool to see them in such a different setting. Also nice to see a director who can put sex at the forefront without making it feel forced or awkward. An unusually difficult thing to find these days, but a lot of credit goes to the cast in that regard as well.
That sexy bastard Antonio Banderas does a fantastic job playing the mad doctor himself, Robert Ledgard. His killer looks and emotionally numb demeanor totally betray what he’s capable of, so when he really starts to get his evil on, it’s mighty sinister when he goes about it with the bedside manner of a process server. Although my one issue with Legdard is that his unusually trustworthy nature is a tad horseshit considering the circumstances. I don’t care how much she looks like your dead wife, dude. You give that girl an inch and you bet your sweet ass she’ll be taking a mile. And on that note, Elena Anaya pretty much steals the show as the girl down the hall, Vera. Helps that she’s got the best character of the lot, but she goes all out and gives a really bold performance that just keeps on commanding the screen. Freaking gorgeous, too.
Man, how does Melanie Griffith let Antonio get away with this stuff? Homey does not leave much to the imagination.
So the structure could use some work, it misses out on a lot of opportunities that could have made for a pretty thrilling ride, and its effectiveness as a whole is dependent on a central gimmick. Then again, boy, is it some gimmick. In a world where people make movies about human centipedes, it takes a lot to shock our sick fascinations these days, so the fact that this one is a lightning bolt to the solar plexus goes an awfully long way. But aside from the one thing in this movie that I keep referring to but can’t talk about, The Skin I Live In is a pretty crazy character study fueled by grief, revenge, sex, and identity with a lot of layers and some serious staying power. Still think I’ll stick to his dramas, but more power to Almodovar for coming up with this sick puppy and making me terrified of stuff that I couldn’t have cared less about beforehand.