The Skin I Live In / La Piel Que Habito (2011)

La Piel Que Habito

Neither really a return to form for Almodóvar nor a Banderas reinvention, The Skin I Live In is good clean, honest fun. Like Frankenstein and no monster.

The Skin I Live In

Dark Habits by Mark Wilshin

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

After catapulting into Hollywood after Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! in 1990, Antonio Banderas has returned to Spain to pair up once more with Almodóvar for The Skin I Live In, a film that isn’t entirely dissimilar from its antecedent twenty years ago. While in ¡Átame! Ricky was a gauche ex-patient from a psychiatric hospital in Madrid and Victoria Abril an actress he kidnaps and falls in love with, La Piel Que Habito reinvents the young sadist as a doctor at the height of his career, who kidnaps his daughter’s near-rapist and operates him into a woman. Despite all appearances, it’s not quite the subversive Stockholm syndrome of its predecessor, where kidnapper and hostage fall into a rather groovy kind of love, but rather a spooky revenge tragedy with a man recreating his dead wife and Almodovar’s by now trademark logic-to-the-wind chronology. It may lack some of ¡Átame!‘s comedy and charm, but with a stellar cast, including Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes and a magnificent performance form Banderas, snatched from an endless spiral of Shreks, Zorros and Spy Kids, The Skin I Live In is a macabre pleasure indeed.

In fact, there are two gothic tales at the heart of The Skin I Live In – E.T.A Hoffmann’s The Sandman and Mary Shelley’s ultimate mad scientist myth Frankenstein. Or, if you prefer, Pygmalion and Prometheus. There’s Robert’s fashioning of the perfect woman, from uncannily spherical silicon breasts to top-of-the-range lipstick and eyeshadow as well as his underground medical bunker, a glass cube within the gothic cellar where he creates his fire-resistant skin. This incidental plot MacGuffin in fact serves little purpose, except to provide a context to the doctor’s madcap schemes and the ultimate means by which Vera snaps out of her spell, after seeing herself as Vicente in a newspaper article brought to the house by ex-colleague Fulgencio. And of course, the excuse for Elena Anaya’s superbly figure-hugging costumes, a prosthetic sling to tighten the skin, all appendages and disbelief suspended.

Perhaps I do the film’s plot an injustice. After all, The Skin I Live In was inspired by the patchwork dolls of Louise Bourgeois. But for me, there’s none of the sculptress’s organic ooze, nor Hoffman’s uncanny or Shelley’s gothic. Instead, La Piel Que Habito exists in the same world as Broken Embraces of overbearing men and impossibly perfect women. And it’s a demimonde that’s always provided the Spanish director with enough material – overlooking the self-cannibalising Los Abrazos Rotos. But there are only really two moments that feel uniquely Almodovaresque – the inexplicably Brazilian tigrinho who rapes Vera before being shot and Pedro’s brother and producer Agustin’s by now familiar cameo appearance as an abandoned husband donating his wife’s clothes before she has the chance to come back. I know, we can’t still mourn the satirical pastiche or the sexy controversy of Almodóvar’s movida heyday, but, while beautifully made, The Skin I Live In doesn’t quite embody the Spanish director’s warmth or chaotic joie de vivre.

In fact, it’s strangely cold and calculating; its Venus of Urbino reproduction all too quickly echoed in Vera’s widescreen, onscreen close-up, the gender-bending ramifications of Robert’s amorous gaze too easily under-exposed. Finally, all we’re left with is an all-too-easy reductio ad absurdum reading of the filmmaker’s search for the perfect muse, a cinematic rendering perhaps of Almodovar’s own women – Victoria Abril, Carmen Maura, Marisa Paredes and Penelope Cruz all stuffed under Elena Anaya’s polyester skin. Almodóvar’s straight washing of Robert’s queer desire is perhaps the oddest thing about The Skin I Live In, a bypassed opportunity for shocking sexiness. Nor do we really get under the skin of Vicente’s unwelcome metamorphosis into Vera, the film’s emotional stuntedness becoming only too clear in the final reel, when we fade to black undecided between the tragedy done to Vicente and the sublime beauty of Robert’s masterwork. Vicente may not be a woman historically, culturally or mentally, but you get the feeling he’s not entirely displeased with the figure he cuts in a retro dress.

With a plot somewhere between trash and tragedy, The Skin I Live In is still immensely enjoyable. No doubt in part due to Banderas who easily combines the manly grace of a matador with the unpredictable chill of a psychopath. And while Marisa Paredes festers admirably in an underused role of home help and information provider, Elena Anaya is charmingly rebellious, confused and elastic. Perhaps like the film’s disappointingly unnecessary fire-retardant skin, The Skin I Live In isn’t so much about mechanics as surface. And when the exterior’s so glossy, maybe we can forget about the confusion trapped inside.

The Skin I Live In is released in the UK on 26th August 2011

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