By Ezra Stead
The Skin I Live In, Spain, 2011
Written and Directed by Pedro Almodovar
Based on the Novel Tarantula by Thierry Jonquet
Many are the times I’ve noticed over the years, and always to my (at least) mild irritation, the tendency of moviegoers to attend horror films in large groups of friends. This is presumably to numb the impact of the events onscreen, using the familiar “safety in numbers” approach to ward off all that scary stuff they all presumably paid to see in the first place. As if this weren’t bad enough, these unnecessarily large moviegoing groups (the number is usually at least four, and often they’ll take up an entire row of seats) feel the need to laugh at some of the scariest moments, or perhaps at the reactions of the most squeamish and easily frightened member of their troop to said moments. In case you were unaware, this is precisely the wrong way to see a horror film; it is akin to seeing a comedy alone and covering one’s ears during all the funny parts. In fact, it is far worse than that, because it actively distracts and undercuts the film’s impact for the rest of the audience. After all, it’s pretty hard to be sufficiently frightened by something at which people are audibly giggling nervously all around you. This is why I generally prefer to see horror movies by myself, late at night, in a dark room at home.
Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar’s latest film, The Skin I Live In, is not exactly a horror movie, but it may be the closest he has yet come to making one in his three decade-long career. Audiences tend to respond with nervous laughter not only when confronted with frightening cinematic moments, but also with otherwise uncomfortable ones, and this film supplies many of those. Almodovar never relies on the cheap shock moments so often (over)used in more conventional horror films, but most of Skin‘s story is filled with deeply unsettling imagery and thematic content. Without giving too much away, this film contains rape, murder, torture, unusual imprisonment and forced surgery, all of which were apparently hilarious to much of the packed crowd with whom I saw the film. To be fair, there is some humor in the film, and Almodovar is often rightly associated with camp and melodrama, but for me at least, it went beyond mere annoyance and into the realm of despair for humanity that so many people would laugh at events to which a more appropriate response would be a long, protracted “Wow.”
Haunted by the death of his wife in a fiery car wreck, the brilliant but reclusive plastic surgeon Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) works tirelessly to create a synthetic skin that will be impervious to flame. His guinea pig in these experiments is a beautiful young woman named Vera Cruz (Elena Anaya) who appears to be more his prisoner than his patient, under lock and key in his mansion, where she is monitored by surveillance camera at all times. When Dr. Ledgard cannot be at home, Vera is watched by his assistant, Marilia (Marisa Paredes), who is persuaded by her vicious, criminally-minded son Zeca (Roberto Alamo) to let him in to the mansion while Dr. Ledgard is away, despite bad blood between them in the past. When Zeca discovers the video monitor recording Vera in her locked room, he becomes the catalyst for an increasingly bizarre series of events that leads the viewer into the past, in a non-linear construction that at first feels arbitrary and disjointed, but ultimately proves to be the perfect way in which to reveal the story.
Along with camp and melodrama, Almodovar is known for his labyrinthine, multi-character storylines and incredible visual style, both of which are prominently on display here. In his best works, such as All About My Mother (1999) and Talk to Her (2002), the latter is very much in service of the former, whereas in his weaker films, like Volver (2006), the most striking and memorable moments stand apart from the more practical concerns of narrative structure. In Skin, he manages to nicely toe that line, giving free reign to his more flamboyant sensibilities without sacrificing a wildly bizarre and intriguing story told in the most compelling and surprising way possible. Zeca, for example, is dressed in an elaborate tiger costume throughout his screen time, which would seem to be a needlessly over-the-top touch but for its relatively simple explanation: being a wanted convict, he can only be out on the street during the Spanish festival of Carnival. Likewise the non-linear narrative, which jumps back and forth over small and large amounts of time in order to yield maximum impact from its most shocking and unbelievable aspects.
I am being deliberately vague about the plot, as it is simply too good to spoil. If you go in looking for a huge, amazing twist, you will undoubtedly see it coming and be disappointed, which is why I recommend marveling over the details instead. There is a great moment near the middle of the film, for example, that parallels our earlier introduction to the character of the dress-maker Vicente (Jan Cornet) at work in his shop with his attempt to cover up a terrible crime he second-guesses and decides not to go through with, though the damage is already done in a way he can’t possibly imagine. Also worth particular note is Banderas in the lead role, projecting a fierce intensity that may be his very best performance; it is not easy to create a mad scientist character in a realistic way in a modern art film, and that is just what he manages. Without the believability of his work, along with that of Almodovar veterans Anaya and Paredes, I might have found myself laughing right along with the rest of the audience. Instead, I was bowled over and continue to be haunted by one of the boldest and most daring films I’ve seen so far this year.
Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’tGet.com. Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper and poet who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.
For more information, please contact EzraStead@MoviesIDidntGet.com.