But Will His Fans Follow Him?
It is almost a given that detractors of the newest from Pedro Almodóvar will blurt out the film's baroque twists in their contortions to craft the glibbest dismissal possible; at the same time, a reluctance to spill those strange story points shouldn't be taken as an unequivocal endorsement. Of all the great modern European filmmakers, Almodóvar has recently felt like the one in most peril of turning his groove -- sumptuous surfaces, a tone between the operatic and the soap-operatic, each frame glossy with the delight of cinema like a lipstick smear from an ardent lover -- into a rut. With "The Skin I Live In," he's clearly jolted and wrested himself out of any potential rut; the concern is now, rather, what to make of the new territory he, and we, are in.
If the opening title -- "Toledo, 2012" -- weren't enough to fix us in the near-future, the unfolding plot soon moves the film to the more jagged edges of the near future. Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), a brilliant plastic surgeon, is working on a new form of artificial skin -- burn-resistant; insect-repellent; tougher and better than the mere membrane God or nature made us, and tested on mice. Meanwhile, at his residence and private clinic in the hills, a young woman who is most decidedly not a mouse, Vera (Elena Anaya) is both the beneficiary of Ledgard's genius and the captive of his madness.
If Cinema is the art form of our age, its obsession with mad scientists -- from Caligari to Frankenstein, from "Metropolis"s' Dr. Rotwang to "Dead Ringers"'s doctors Mantle -- may reflect our age's greatest anxiety, as cool calculating monsters that not only prove God dead, but endeavor to improve upon His handwork. The George Franju 1960 psycho-chiller "Eyes Without a Face" is a clear influence here -- but so is George Bernard Shaw's 1912 "Pygmalion" (as well as the myth that inspired Shaw), where the search for the perfect woman involves making her out of whatever raw materials one can find at hand, and how 'perfection' is in the eye of the beholder.
Many of Almodóvar's stylistic crutches are here -- huge chunks of exposition bit off and spat in the audience's face, a penchant for the kind of plotting that requires those huge chunks of exposition to support it, flashbacks so long that the present-tense action loses some of its present tension. But in a grim, fascinating change, Almodóvar's script (based on Thierry Jonquet's 2003 novel) isn't about his usual mothering maternal women, but, rather about Banderas' bad, mad dad, a man whose desires are second only to his desire for control. Ledgard lost his wife to fire after she went off with a lover, and his daughter to madness after she was raped; his efforts with Vera seem like an attempt to recapture some aspects of both, until the way the kinks of the story twist out make it clear that something much more complicated -- and much worse -- is happening.
As much of a departure as "The Skin I Live In" seems to be on a story level, Almodóvar smartly chooses to work with frequent collaborators. José Luis Alcaine's cinematography is lustrous and lush; Alberto Inglasias' music evokes the slashing, spooky strings of Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Hermann, and not by accident. "The Skin I Live In" can easily be seen as an Almodóvarian spin on "Vertigo," one where sanity and gender are both bent until broken, and both later cut to order. At one early point, Vera stands entirely too close to Ledgard and purrs "I'm made to measure for you …"; as past events make us replay and re-parse those words, the movie snaps between bright glittering glamour and dark, doomed horror.
Much like its fellow Cannes Competition selection entry "Sleeping Beauty," The Skin I Live In is an unsettling dance of thanatos and eros, death and sex; unlike the Australian film's slow and swooning ballet, Almodovar gives us a swift and shimmering tarantella, the dance that began as a folk remedy for venomous spider bites. There's something poisonous in "The Skin I Live In" -- you have to wonder if it's an unparalleled example of misogyny or an unparalleled refutation of it, if Almodovar's embracing the pulp and pop melodrama of the material or mocking it -- and something in it lingers even when you try and shake it. Almodóvar's film may seem thin at first glance, but it's exactly as thin as the skin we wear between the outer world and the blood in our bodies -- and just as uniquely beautiful and distinctively imperfect. [B-] - James Rocchi