Spain. 120 minutes. Directed by Pedro Almódovar, 2011. Starring Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes, Jan Cornet, Roberto Álamo.
Robert Ledgard is a brilliant surgeon and scientist who has devised a new artificial skin resistant to disease and damage. He claims to have developed it by testing it on mice, but he’s lying. A strange woman named Vera, clad only in a skintight body-stocking, lives in a secured set of rooms in his country manse. She bears an uncanny resemblance to Ledgard’s deceased wife Gal (for whom he’s named his invention), but who is she really–and what connection does she have to Ledgard’s daughter Norma, who committed suicide, and Vincente, the man Ledgard believes raped Norma?
Who are you?
You probably like to believe you’re a singular being. You have your own body, your own mind, your own soul and your own inviolable identity, unique and distinct from everybody else you share this planet with.
But are you really? How did you come to be? Not in the biological sense, but in the psychological. These things that come together to make you You–the music you listen to, the career path you follow, the hobbies you’ve taken up, your spiritual beliefs (or lack thereof), the neuroses you’ve accumulated, the desire to sleep with the hottie who frequents the same Starbucks as you, your racial, ethnic, cultural and sexual identity–where do these things actually come from? And how fixed are these facets of your identity?
Next question: how do others see you? Your spouse or lover, parents, children, coworker, friends, acquaintances–who do they think you are? How well do they know you? Does their conception of you match up with the reality?
And while we’re on the subject of perception, are you even the person you believe yourself to be? Or are you just the physical manifestation of the stories you tell about yourself?
That’s pretty heavy subject matter for any work of fiction, let alone a horror movie. But The Skin I Live In isn’t your ordinary horror movie. Most of the time it doesn’t feel much like a horror movie, to be honest. But there’s a secret at the center of Skin that’s so horrifying, not just within the context of the narrative but also in a philosophical sense, that it blew my mind and I’ve barely been able to turn my thoughts away from it since watching the film. Identity, Almóvodar posits, may be a great deal more fluid than we wish it to be, and any skilled practitioner might change to suit his whims.
The story itself employs a bit of a strange structure, mostly taking the form of stories told from the characters’ pasts, whether it take the form of dialogue (Ledgard’s servant tells her son–also one of Gal’s lovers–the story of the automobile accident which so horribly burned Ledgard’s wife…and of her eventual death) or flashback (dream sequences reveal the sequence of events which led to Vera’s imprisonment at Ledgard’s hands). Despite the unusual structure, these stories are fascinating and expertly told. The film is a bit slow to start, and maintains a languid pace throughout, but that isn’t really a problem.
The whole thing could easily have come off like an attempt to camp up Eyes Without a Face (which Skin resembles in a number of ways, including the lyrical camera work and the basic setup). But the excellent ensemble resists the temptation to do so and stay dead serious throughout. Antonio Banderas puts in a surprisingly brilliant performance as Ledgard, who may be an insane scientist but by no means a mad one; the ravishing Elena Anaya manages to make Vera enigmatic, aloof and approachable all at once. There’s also strong performances from Marisa Parades (Marillia, Ledgard’s longtime servant), Bianca Suárez (Norma) and Jan Cornet (Vicente). And then there’s Roberto Álamo, who’s able to pull off the unenviable task of being intimidating and threatening while dressed in Tigger fetish-cosplay garb.
Almódovar’s direction ensures that Banderas and Anaya aren’t the only eye candy on offer. His impeccable camera work is reminiscent of Kubrick and Cronenberg (indeed, Skin often feels like a film Cronenberg should have made, merging as it does the body horror of his early films with the obsessions which typify his modern masterpieces such as A History of Violence and Cosmopolis), and the production design is lush and sumptuous without (well…mostly) going over-the-top.
Almódovar has described The Skin I Live In as “a horror story without screams or frights,” which is an accurate enough description, but don’t let its beauty lull you into a false sense of security. It’s as horrifying and unsettling as any bucket-of-blood gorefest…perhaps moreso, because its scares come from its themes and ideas rather than its viscera. Don’t miss it.