Pedro Almodóvar’s work possesses an unmistakable stylistic signature: a colourful, knowing fusion of Hitchcock and Sirk, compassionate portraits of strong women, and lush visuals harking back to the veneer of star-dominated golden age Hollywood. The Skin I Live In joins his output from the past decade in the same staggered release format: debuting in Cannes, and then proceeding to impress critics and delight culture-hungry audiences on the UK August bank holiday weekend, before embarking on a charge towards the Best Foreign Language Oscar in the end-of-year award season. For all the high-brow attention he receives, Almodóvar is – shock! horror! – very settled as a commercial, populist filmmaker – an auteur working on a broad canvas with some of the leading lights of Spanish cinema, aiming to please the biggest possible audience. In his more anarchic early period, the culture department of the newly liberated Spain chose the X-rated Law of Desire to reintroduce Spanish culture to the world after Franco’s dictatorship, symbolising the wide appeal and accessible pleasures of his filmmaking. Whereas the provocations of his directorial peers Von Trier and Haneke seem to hack at the foundations of their own careers and success, the Almodovar aesthetic appears like a throwback to a bygone era: quality pictures produced at short intervals with recognisable stars – entertainment of a reliable sort.
Almodóvar was instrumental in launching Antonio Banderas to Hollywood fame on the back of his performances in the likes of Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, all from the late ‘80s. Here in his latest film, The Skin I Live In, he re-teams with Banderas after a twenty-year break, but in the style of his more sombre latter-day work. Banderas plays the wonderfully named Robert Ledgard, a brilliant plastic surgeon working to develop a new stronger, flame-resistant human skin transplanted from pig hide. No stranger to transgressing boundaries of medical ethics, Ledgard has a human specimen for his experimentation: the beautiful, mysterious Vera [Elena Anaya], who is locked in her bedroom, essentially a prisoner. She wears a flesh-toned, skin-hugging body suit for the purpose of affixing her artificial skin in place, practices an acrobatic form of yoga and reads Alice Munro for want of anything to do. It’s an astonishingly cruel and almost hysterically inhumane scenario, which Almodóvar exploits for all its twisted logic – almost every room is decked out with CCTV screens gazing upon Vera in her room. Ledgard can spy on his sorry captive whenever he pleases, and the undercurrent of his medical obsession is revealed as preserving a sadistic kind of love.
Banderas plays Ledgard with a searing, possessed chill, driven with such horrible intensity that makes us doubt the primary explanation offered for his actions. The tragic death of his wife, appears to be some valid seed for the carnage that ensues, but Ledgard is so silent and so unperturbed while inflicting a similar pain to what he himself has endured. The fantastical bent and inscrutability of Ledgard’s plan has a tone of heightened anxiety that is in marked contrast to Almodóvar’s past films, and definitively aligns him with the protagonists of Frankenstein, The Island of Dr. Moreau and of one of the film’s inspirations Eyes Without a Face: brilliant men hubristically determined to remake the world, and other human beings as their own, and in thrall to their perverse longings.
The Skin I Live In replants – in a manner not unlike the fastidiousness of Ledgard himself – the butchery and instability of these themes into a casing befitting the most suspenseful of thrillers. It’s an engaging and compulsively watchable story; ghoulish and dripping with dread like a great tale told around a campfire, yet buffeted with the flourish of high cinematic art. Like everything Almodóvar has made, the aesthetic pleasure of graceful camerawork, attractive set design and buoyant colour begs to be admired in the foreground, but never to the detriment of the complex intricacies of his plots. Nevertheless, classifying the film as a straight horror, as some were want to do at Cannes, is slightly misleading: in comparison with the body horrors of David Cronenberg and Takashi Miike, there is nary a drop of blood.
After the shock of the science-fiction shaded premise has worn off, the film continues Almodóvar’s career-long fascination with the fluidity and constraints of gender roles. His films frequently feature characters that are either transvestites or transsexuals, who often humorously comment on their journey from man to woman or woman to man – an Almodóvar picture is no place for the normative codes of sexuality. When Ledgard says to another senior doctor at a medical conference that he wants to pursue a similar modification in humans to what scientists have achieved on plants and animals, this attests to the sense that his films in part celebrate a sense of liberation from the constraints of our body by birth. Almodóvar’s cinema, then, achieves the rare balance of appearing commercially satisfying and yet searchingly radical, not only in its examination and critique of our behaviour, but also from its interest in our bodily desires and appearances. The Skin I Live In, as a result, is a pulpy and fantastical realm unveiling suspense on the warped hinge of physical transformation – a pure melodrama of the body.
Illustration by Thomas Ball.