Whilst superficially indebted as much to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as the novella Tarantula by French writer Thierry Jonquet, from which director Pedro Almodóvar loosely adapted his screenplay, the key referential text to which The Skin I Live In tips its hat is Georges Franju’s brilliantly bizarre gothic masterpiece Les Yeux Sans Visage (1960). Both films share similar themes of guilt and loss, identity and obsession, with Almodóvar lifting the iconic image of Edith Scob’s white, sculpted mask, used to hide the horrific scarring onto which Pierre Brasseur’s guilt-ridden scientist Dr Génessier is attempting to graft a new face. But where Franju delights in cranking up the melodramatic elements of his narrative, unashamedly revelling in the freakshow weirdness of his imagery as much through the recurring, carnival-esque score as through his disorientating camera work as the film builds to its demented climax, Almodóvar has any such stylistic accentuation on lockdown, eschewing both the visual and tonal exaggerations of his earlier works for something much more subdued. It’s an attempt at grounding an essentially ridiculous high-concept narrative which he extends to his leading man, apparently asked to replicate the kind of blank canvass performances of Alain Delon for Jean-Pierre Melville in the likes of Le Samouraï (1967), but it’s also an approach which essentially backfires. Almodóvar may still be the master of an exquisitely realised mise-en-scene, but for all his cinematic and literary allusions and borrowings, his aptly surgical precision in respect of his frame, The Skin I Live In ultimately mirrors the work undertaken by Banderas’ Dr Ledgard in creating an impervious sheen of artifice, an exercise in aesthetic control more interested in its characters as ciphers for his convoluted narrative revelations than anything approaching emotional engagement.
Illicitly conducting transgenetic experiments to develop a new form of super-strength skin in the basement of his palatial home in Toledo, the brilliantly successful Dr Ledgard keeps his human guinea pig patient, Vera (Elena Anaya) locked away at the top of his house. Rigged with cameras, intercoms and a dumb-waiter to deliver her food and books, she remains isolated, only in contact with Ledgard and his live-in mother, Marilia (Marisa Paredes), who prepares her meals and keeps house. When Ledgard’s half-brother Zeca (Roberto Álamo) arrives, dressed as a tiger and on the run from the police after robbing a jewellery store, questions as to Vera’s identity and why she’s under such strict surveillance take a more sinister turn, as we’re introduced to Ledgard’s unstable daughter and the fate of her mother in an extended flashback. For a film that pivots quite so much on the surprise elements of its intricate plotting, it’s best to go in without any further knowledge of how the heavily expository narrative evolves, suffice to say that how much of what follows you’re prepared to swallow really depends on how seduced you are by the director’s distractive measures.
Last year, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan showed with some degree of success how to pull focus away from some ridiculous plot mechanics with an aggressive bombardment of stylistic flourishes. Almodóvar, for better or worse, goes for an antithetical approach, restraining his instinctive directorial style in spite of his material’s inherent melodrama. But where such clinical detachment has served other filmmakers brilliantly in the past, most notably David Cronenberg, whose icy control over the likes of Dead Ringers (1988) shares not only thematic concerns, but an aestheticism obsessed with surfaces and textures, seen here most obviously in both the sheen of Vera’s new skin and her Gaultier-designed protective body glove, as well notions of identity and transformation (his M. Butterfly comes to mind) and shared literary touchstones, Almodóvar struggles to find any balance between tone and style, lacking Cronenberg’s restraint and observational distance. Whilst Vera surrounds herself with books by Cormac McCarthy, lines like “I’ve got insanity in my entrails” are the type Cronenberg would revel in, particularly when shooting Ballard or Burroughs.
Almodóvar throws many an idea into the mix, many reflexively commenting on the nature of both filmmaking and film watching. Images are lifted not only from Franju, but also from the likes of Buñuel, Hitchcock and Lang, even himself, with Ledgard keeping watch over Vera through multiple monitors throughout his house, including an enormous plasma television in his office on which he zooms in on her face, like a director framing a shot, his own image distortedly reflected back in the glass of the screen. As he continues in his quest for his own aesthetic ideal through his work on Vera, she both destroys and creates, tearing up the dresses he sends her to wear into tiny pieces, reconditioning them into grotesque maquettes whilst defiantly scrawling on her wall ‘art is conducive to good health’ with the make-up he wants her to use.
The Skin I Live In is beautifully composed and shot by cinematographer José Luis Alcaine, responsible for Bad Education (2004) and Volver (2006) as well as Almodóvar’s last film with Banderas, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990), and whilst the palette may be more consistent with those later works, there’s still room for splashes of primary colour, most notably when images of blood fill the frame, echoing Marilia’s assertion that they “once lived like vampires”, one of many horror movie inflected references that finds life most notably in the horns and violins on the score, shrieking over electronic breaks. It’s the third act in which most of the narrative issues lie, which remain hard to discuss without giving away the film’s major revelation. There may be an almost classical poise to Almodóvar’s images, as perfectly replicated as Vera’s skin or her yoga poses, but they remain just that, replications, that whilst perhaps often magnificent to behold, never become more than the sum of their parts, masking a narrative that requires a handful rather than a pinch of salt to take.
The Skin I Live In (La Piel Que Habito) – 2011 – Spain – 117 mins – Dir : Pedro Almodóvar