The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodóvar, 2011)

30Sep11

Antonio Banderas (Robert Ledgard), Elena Anaya (Vera). Screenplay by Pedro Almodóvar. Directed by Pedro Almodóvar. Rating: 15. Running time: 117 minutes.

If there’s a single theme that ties the young Pedro to the celebrated auteur we have today, it’s undoubtedly the sexual insanity that infiltrates his early, mad comedies and travels right through to the warmer and more mature dramas that he has been making ever since All About My Mother. Reflecting on the likes of the utterly different but equally crazy Kika and Talk to Her, you would be forgiven for thinking that his main theme could not get any more extreme. With a besotted male nurse raping the love of his life whilst she lies in a coma – a story that is somehow capable of securing audience compassion – how could the bar be raised any higher? And yet it turns out that to presume this is to pass judgement before witnessing The Skin I Live In. I carry not a single doubt that herein lies Almodovar’s maddest antagonist yet.

It’s a level of madness to rival a Scorsese character. Be it Travis Bickle, Bill Cutting or Jake LaMotta, not a single one of them comes close to the craziness packed into Antonio Banderas’ role here, even if the performance is inevitably infinitely more subdued. To give away the detail is to destroy the desired effect, so make do with this: Banderas plays a plastic surgeon seeking retribution for the rape of his daughter. Search long and hard as you watch it, but I’m willing to predict even the most devout of Almodovar aficionados will not foresee for a long time the sickening plot twist, laden with the most daring dose of black humour, that ties the film together.

It’s his usual Hitchcockian territory all over again, and this time Vertigo in particular. Firstly, in the obsession of a man with the appearance of a woman, but also and more importantly in terms of the narrative structure: us remaining for a long time in the dark as to the nature of what we are seeing, with the twist, when it finally arrives, recolouring everything prior to it and securing the strangest of retrospective pleasures.

For a long time The Skin I Live In is a very difficult film to watch. Questions linger; developments are sluggish; we sit a little lost in limbo, and it’s damn uncomfortable because we’re just not used to such tactics coming from the man behind Volver.

And it is, of course, shot with painful beauty. This is made by a man who can apparently even work aesthetic wonders with the colour of a car park. But unless it’s the beginning of a new period in his filmmaking, this film will refuse to be compartmentalised. Again, it’s a continuation of the sexual madness that unifies all of his work, and it’s also in a sense a progression from the neo-noir overtones that began in Broken Embraces. It could even be put down in a long line of procedural films about a man addicted to and obsessed by his craft – where Antonioni chose photography in Blowup, the Coens murder in No Country and Anderson oil in There Will Be Blood, Almodovar here has opted for facial transplants. But in the depth of The Skin I Live In’s darkness a new realm of absurdity and magic is carved out. Even after years of familiarity with his humour, which is still willing to return to and play with rape, I could barely bring myself to laugh at the madness of it all. Filmed by anyone else, the film would be hilarious because of its downright stupidity. It is a special but inexplicable gift that Mr Almodovar has, that he can somehow pull this one off, with us once more amply rewarded for following his every film, and no doubt destined once more to underappreciate his work, failing to realise this is as creative and ballsy as cinema ever gets.

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