Friday, October 14, 2011

The Skin I Live In (La Piel Que Habito)

A Second Skin, And A Second Chance At Vengeance

Elena Anaya as Vera and Antonio Banderas as Dr. Robert Ledgard in Pedro Almodóvar's horror-thriller "The Skin I Live In". 
Sony Pictures Classics

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
ay, October 14, 2011

Plastic surgeon Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) has lost his wife in a car crash, burned to a cinder.  We don't see this but we see it all over the face of a man who has been haunted for it.  He makes a skin that will be impenetrable to any injury or burning.  He experiments with patients to test this skin out for effect.

For weeks Dr. Ledgard has been gazing at Vera (Elena Anaya), a woman in a fleshy body suit whom he's kept imprisoned in his home the way Julian Sands kept Sherilyn Fenn captive in "Boxing Helena".  Beauty is only skin deep, supposedly, and this realization may be lost on the good doctor in Pedro Almodóvar's twisted, topsy-turvy horror-thriller, "The Skin I Live In", which opened today in New York City and Los Angeles.

Mr. Almodóvar and Mr. Banderas reunite 21 years after "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!" and the latter is at his best in an intense, commanding performance as Ledgard, even if the former isn't at his apex with "Skin".  The film is a muted, less colorful and engaging film than the director's more familiar (and greater) work.  What's noteworthy about "The Skin I Live In" is its precision and clinical approach to  procedure, specifically in Dr. Ledgard's everyday work.  Routine is still routine, even if it isn't.  There's less comedy and poignancy in the film's story-telling (based on the book Mygale by Thierry Jonquet) and while its random episodes blast off, there's a discipline that keeps much of "The Skin I Live In" firmly on the ground.

Dr. Ledgard is Lovecraft in a funny, ironic way, a Re-Animator or Frankenstein creator who gives birth to rejuvenated beings.  He's a man from a family whose tree has been corrupted by fate and much malevolence.  We learn that something horrible has happened to his only daughter and then something happens within him.  There's some underlying comedy about doctors in several subtle moments, including in a conversation Dr. Ledgard has with a biotechnology executive (José Luis Gómez of "Broken Embraces".)

As with a number of Almodóvar films, "The Skin I Live In" has plenty of Hitchcockian flourishes and combines the madness of its characters and events with Eden-like corruptions of Adam and Eve, staged in ways only Mr. Almodóvar can.  Told out of sequence in some places, "Skin" has memorable players, including a man in a tiger's suit who reunites with his mother.  Ms. Anaya ("Point Blank") plays Vera as frozen captive, arresting on occasion, near translucent in others, in a physically demanding bit of work.  When the film comes together out of its pieces and episodes Ms. Anaya's work is stronger and better than it first appears.

The director loves to investigate touch, perception and image in plain, eloquent ways.  Projection of image, whether contained on a large screen or running unabashed, always ends up being larger than life in Mr. Almodóvar's wicked theater.  The engine of the craziness that ensues in "The Skin I Live In" is geared by the ultimate adrenaline: love.  The overall result is a cool, jagged film which left me less satisfied than I'd expected.  At times "The Skin I Live In" is sharp, piercing and almost as gloomy as "La Mala Educacion" (Bad Education).  Layered and detailed, "Skin" is a film that requires at least two viewings to get a true sense of its state of mind.

Is Dr. Ledgard fulfilled by his experimentations on patients?  He's probably tortured by them, and there's scarcely any joy he appears to derive from them.  He's driven by a need to make things right, to fix what nature (or rather its corruption) has destroyed.  Sometimes experiments work in unintended ways.  Dr. Ledgard seems not to learn a key lesson: a skin may protect you, but memories will always burn through.

With: Marisa Paredes, Jan Cornet, Roberto Álamo, Blanca Suárez, Bárbara Lennie, Fernando Cayo, Eduárd Fernández.

"The Skin I Live In" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for disturbing violent content including sexual assault, strong sexuality, graphic nudity, drug use and language.  The film is in the Spanish language with English subtitles.  The film's running time is one hour and 57 minutes. 

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