sat 25/05/2024

The Skin I Live In | reviews, news & interviews

The Skin I Live In

The Skin I Live In

Almodóvar carves his elegant body horror flick with the precision of a surgeon’s blade

Boxing Elena: revenge, obsession and desire in 'The Skin I Live In'

Cinematic virtuoso Pedro Almodóvar’s contribution to the body horror subgenre is a sumptuous nightmare with the precision and looming malevolence of its psychotic surgeon’s blade. His 19th feature is a film for our age – an age which has seen radical and sometimes grotesque surgical reinvention - concerned as it is with the troubling question: what actually lies beneath?

Based fairly loosely on the novel Tarantula by Thierry Jonquet, The Skin I Live In reunites Almodóvar with his former leading man of choice, Antonio Banderas. Banderas plays Robert Ledgard, a cutting-edge (excuse the pun), indecently rich plastic surgeon residing in a luxury manor-turned-fortress on the outskirts of Toledo, Spain. Ledgard has been indulging in dubious scientific experimentation which has led him to create a highly resilient brand of artificial skin.

Even more alarmingly, Ledgard has been conducting his scientific trials on a captive human subject. His prisoner is the enigmatic Vera (Elena Anaya), whom he seems to resent and desire in equal measure. She is confined to a single room in his extravagant abode, exhaustingly eyeballed by multiple cameras and whiling away her days exercising and meditating, attired bizarrely in a flesh-coloured body suit. After she implores that he free her - so that they may live as a "normal" couple - he recoils from her advances in apparent disgust, but immediately retires to continue observing her reaction writ large on his enormous private screen.

It’s a film with its fair share of secrets to reveal – precious few of which you will stumble upon here. Although we learn early on that Vera has been sculpted in the image of Ledgard’s late wife, the pertinent question is this: who exactly looks out from behind her impossibly immaculate façade? Similarly mysterious is Marilia (Almodóvar regular Marisa Paredes), Ledgard’s hopelessly devoted housekeeper who seems to acquiesce and even assist in the imprisonment of the young woman.

SkinCompAs Vera, Almodóvar has appositely cast Elena Anaya (pictured right), who had a small role in 2002’s Talk to Her. She's an actress of show-stopping beauty with a face many women would pay a surgeon to forge. Furthermore she often appears bathed in a hyper-real glow, her skin almost tangibly soft, frequently reminiscent of the images from cosmetic advertising, dewy and airbrushed - real yet surreal. However, Anaya is undeniably more than a pretty face, giving a heart-wrenching, petal-delicate performance and fully realising the complications of her character. Crucially it’s a performance which also withstands the all-important second viewing.

As her jailer, Banderas also impresses. Interestingly, this is not the first time that he’s played a kidnapper for Almodóvar. He did so in the sexual-violence farce Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990) but Ledgard is a very different beast to that film’s Ricky; he is hard, unreadable, and his monstrous nature lurks behind a refined, seemingly impenetrable veneer.

Is he damning us all to his mad scientist's designs? There are many fascinating dimensions to the The Skin I Live In, most of which can’t be discussed without divulging pivotal plot details but, suffice to say, there are several instances of history repeating itself and a particularly shocking reminder of adultery which prompts a too-good-to-resist opportunity for revenge. Almodóvar has also made the interesting decision to set the film negligibly in the future, in 2012. Is he perhaps saying that the alarming advances in science are just around the corner? Is he damning us all to his mad scientist’s designs?

Despite the flesh and frantic strings, this never approaches the bloodthirsty, hysterical horror of a giallo, retaining an unmistakably Almodóvarian flavour (still mad, then, but not that mad) and even a little of his more outré humour. At its most fundamental level it resembles Frankenstein (or should that be Bride of, or even the more appropriately prurient Flesh for Frankenstein?), but there’s also ample reference to the magnificence of Eyes Without a Face (1960) and Vertigo (1958).

The Skin I Live In isn’t vintage Almodóvar, who works best freed from the confines of genre cinema (see also 2009’s mildly disappointing thriller Broken Embraces). The development of the characters and their tempestuous relationships - usually an Almodóvar strength - sometimes suffers from the need to unfurl the labyrinthine plot. Additionally, if you’re in it for surgical horror you’re better off purchasing The Human Centipede (2009) as, although it’s conceptually frightening and disarming enough, there’s very little bloodshed and it’s totally devoid of scares. No, this is an altogether more elegant chiller. It’s mesmerising, rich and thought-provoking - thoroughly classy, but perhaps a little too cold.

Watch the trailer for The Skin I Live In

Elena Anaya is an actress of show-stopping beauty with a face many women would pay a surgeon to forge


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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