Monday, November 21, 2011

Review: "The Skin I Live In"

If Alfred Hitchcock were making movies in 2011 instead of mid-20th century, he might very well have concocted something like "The Skin I Live In." It's a stylish sexual thriller that takes much of Hitchcock's obsessive voyeurism toward the female form and dials it up to 11. Think "Vertigo," and layer on a whole lot of kinky, fetishistic behavior.

It's a highly disturbing film, and wonderfully so.

Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar -- one of the few filmmakers today who deserves that description -- delivers one of his most original and nightmarish visions. Based on a novel by Thierry Jonquet, it wears the clothes of a mystery/thriller, but like most of Almodóvar's movies the outer layer is just dressing for deeper and darker themes rumbling underneath.

The story opens with a wealthy and driven plastic surgeon, Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), who has a woman locked up in a room of his remote mansion. Is she his prisoner? A patient? A caged bird he desires for himself? Perhaps all of these?

Known only as Vera, the woman (Elena Anaya) wears a strange, skin-tight bodysuit that hugs every inch of her body in a cocoon that is both protective and confining -- even her fingers and toes are tightly encased.
Vera is obviously unhappy: Robert returns home to find her having attempted to slash her wrists and chest. Curiously, she has been very unsuccessful in damaging herself. We soon learn that Robert has spent years perfecting a new replacement for human skin that is resistant to burns and cuts.

Because he achieved this miracle through transgenesis -- combining human and pig skin cells -- his work is forbidden and, therefore, kept strictly secret. His only confidant is his servant Marilia (Marisa Paredes), who has been with the family for decades and is privy to, or part of, all of the Ledgard secrets.

Things really get strange when a man named Zeca wearing a tiger costume for Carnival shows up on the doorstep, and eyes Vera with an animalistic lust.

Clues are dropped like so many bread crumbs in the forest -- are they leading the audience to the answer, or luring us further into a bramble of temptation and madness? Either way, the journey is delectable.

The action suddenly switches to years earlier. Robert's wife, horribly burned in a car accident, kills herself in front of their daughter, Norma. Later, at a wedding party Norma will meet Vicente (Janet Cornet), a charming young rake whose actions will set them all on the path to tragedy.

I cannot say more for fear of ruining the filmgoer's experience. Suffice it to say that all I have described is mere prologue.

Almodóvar, known for pushing boundaries, blows past many of them with this daring vision. Anaya spends almost the entire movie either nude or in that odd bodysuit, and at one point during her transformation wears a translucent mask with a cross-like cutout for her eyes and mouth, too.

The director and his cinematographer, José Luis Alcaine, shoot with bold close-ups and crisp images, so sharply defined it seems everything is lit up like an operating theater. But with splashes of warm color, the feel is anything but sterile -- the visuals are vibrant and breathtaking.

The film's only weakness is that the main character remains something of a cipher. But then, at some point we come to question who exactly is the protagonist.

"The Skin I Live In" is a wonderfully twisted cinematic expedition into territory rarely traveled.

3.5 stars out of four

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