The Skin I Live In  – ★★★★★
🥼This artistically gorgeous and unflinching cinematic creation is a triumph of specifically Almodóvarian film-making.
Hailed as one of the most provocative films of the year, Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In is a bizarre drama about a genius plastic surgeon Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) who creates a new type of human skin that is resistant to all sort of damage, including burns. However, haunted by his past personal tragedies – the death of his wife Gal and daughter Norma, Dr. Ledgard soon goes too far in his scientific experiments when he starts to experiment on his newly captive prisoner Vera (Elena Anaya). The film, which, incidentally, marks the first collaboration in twenty-one years between Antonio Banderas and Almodóvar (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990)), is an outstanding work, containing masterful direction, brilliant film compositions and strong lead performances.
The Skin I Live In, based on a novel by Thierry Jonquet Mygale (1995), touches upon many controversial topics and themes, including obsession, crime, personal tragedy, madness, revenge, power, betrayal, gender, sexual identity and death. At times resembling Boxing Helena (1993) – in the way it portrays obsessive madness and surgical experimentation; or Irreversible (2002) – in terms of its “horror” impact; at others – Eyes Without a Face (1960) – in terms of the plot structure, it seems that the film may appeal to today’s audience in the same way as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) still does.
There have been some debates about the genre of The Skin I Live In. From psychological thriller to horror and melodrama, the film may encapsulate nearly every genre. The correct classification seems to be: a mystery drama with a horror twist (psycho-sexual drama?). The film seems to trespass on every boundary of a rigid classification, arousing a strange sense of eerie uncertainty regarding its subject and plot. As with Shame (2011), there will be both: those who will fall in love with it almost instantly, and those who will dislike it categorically, sensing it too graphic or bewildering, if not downright shocking and horrifying.
The film’s story-telling is as fluent as that of Hitchcock in Vertigo (1958), and the film has a logical, well thought-out structure and sequence of events. Inherently intriguing, the film maintains an enviable degree of mystery, without falling into being either too absurd or too imaginative, despite the fact that it plays with many incompatible ideas and themes. In that vein, the film becomes a good example to illustrate how to shoot a complex plot without losing control of what matters, or needlessly straying in the process.
The acting is also great. Antonio Banderas, just fresh out of the Shrek franchise, gives something special in the film, playing his character as intense or emotionally-detached as Almodóvar so desires, giving an outstanding performance. Elena Anaya, who plays Dr. Ledgard’s captive, also gives a powerful performance, showing just the right amount of emotional detachment and quiet desperation, as her character struggles with the horrific aftermath of Dr. Ledgard’s scientific experimentations. With an outstanding camerawork, setting, costumes and music (Alberto Iglesias), The Skin I Live In seems to accept nothing short of perfection.
One of the film’s criticisms is that half-way through it, when “past events” start to overlap with the “present”, and other background stories and characters unexpectedly emerge, for example, tiger-costume-clad Zeca (Roberto Alamo), the film does become needlessly confusing. That confusion could have been eliminated by providing more detail as to the events leading up to the emergence of these new characters, but this would have detracted from the atmosphere of mystery permeating this film. Nevertheless, the film does make a full recovery, and emerges from this “confusion” by providing a very satisfying twist, which few viewers will soon forget.
Although not necessarily for the mainstream audience’s multiple viewings (the film contains a decent amount of graphic content), The Skin I Live In is still a triumph of specifically Almodóvarian film-making. From the artistic point of view, the film is beautiful, with staggering plot sequence and much food for thought.
On psychological level, the film is very interesting because it showcases a mental state of an individual who has just undergone a sex-reassignment surgery. Whoever saw the documentary The Boy Who Was Turned into a Girl, depicting the tragic life of David Reimer (committed suicide at the age of 38), will know the catastrophic consequences of such a procedure if it is performed without consent, and the fact that “female/male sexuality” is, in fact, “in the brain”, and cannot be “(un)learned”.
It is also a merit to Almodovar’s film that it could be so scientifically unrealistic, bordering fantastic concepts, and yet, maintain realistic undertones throughout. In that vein, the film is a great play with the audience’s own romantic notions, feelings and sexuality, as they have to psychologically reconcile themselves rapidly to a drastic shift in the film’s circumstances. The procedure which Dr. Robert Ledgard used to modify Vicente was not made clear in the story, although, realistically speaking, Dr. Ledgard would probably have needed to swap skulls and whole skeletons to achieve the final result in real-life.
Dr. Robert Ledgard presents a brainy character study, too. Contrary to popular opinion, one can say that Dr. Ledgard, rather than being a psychopath or an evil “monster”, is actually just a man who went insane with grief over losing his family to very traumatic events, becoming obsessed with his wife’s image, desiring to return her to this world at whatever cost. Dr. Robert Ledgard is vindictive and egoistic, but he is also a man who wants to fulfil his professional ambitions, and turning Vicente into Vera presents a real professional challenge for him, which he finds irresistible.
9 Comments Add yours
Never read the spoilers section as I’m desperate to get around to this one. Great review though. Almodovar is a director I’ve always kept an eye on and from what I’m hearing of this, it’s another good one.
Hope you will like this one. The film is quite interesting in its own bizarre way.
I also did not read the spoilers. A very “successful” review in that I can’t wait to watch this now.
I did read the spoilers since I saw this one a few months back and loved it. When I started to get a sneaking suspicion as to where the film was going I was still blown away by the reveal. Loved it.
Great Review, it’s personally my favourite Almodovar film yet
Thanks a lot! Come to think of it, it does come dangerously close to being my favourite Almodovar film too!