Pedro Almodovar has spent the last 30 years crafting a career for himself in Spain, working mostly out of Madrid. His unique brand of filmmaking, which ranges from passionate melodramas to intense sexual thrillers, has made him a big name on the global film stage. He is one of the last remaining authentic auteurs, any film by him is immediately recognizable when you sit down to watch it.
His films are at times wildly flamboyant and portray a side of life we don’t usually see. He also presents us with characters that we never really see on a cinema screen. For instance, the majority of his protagonists are female, men are left as more sideline characters. There are also characters whose gender identity is in crisis and a lot of characters who are gay. And at the start of his career, in films like Matador and Law of Desire, all these elements were really amplified and the films were most certainly an acquired taste.
He came to the attention of the mainstream in late 90’s when films like All About My Mother and Talk to Her took the world by storm and picked up many respectable prizes including Oscars. This was effectively the start of a more mature career, they were less genre orientated and more character orientated. His new film The Skin I Live In, however seems to be a new page in the pantheon of his work in that combines both the past genre pieces and his newer, more mature character work.
For those aware of his work, this is classic Almodovar. It is closest tonally to Almodovar films like Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and Live Flesh, in that it is a thriller but the story is completely barking mad, etched with man’s twisted sensibilities.
The Skin I Live In is based on a French novel titled: ‘Mygale’ and tells the story of Dr. Robert Ledgard, a leading plastic surgeon who is currently working on developing an ultra resistant human skin mutated from pig cells. The experiments come from an obsession that stems from the death of his wife following a car accident that left her with hideous burns.
He tests this skin on a guinea pig called Vera, who is prisoned in an upstairs room in his house. However, as the story unfolds, many other revelations are brought to light, revealing everything to not be as it originally seems. Anything further than that would be spoiling the brilliant surprises that Almodovar rolls out over the two hours.
It is, for my money, the best film I’ve seen this year, and that’s for a number of reasons. We have just come out of a really dismal summer period where derivative, 3D franchise films have dominated the multiplexes. It is great to see a film that actually attempts to push the envelope and really test an audience. Of course, we haven’t come to expect anything less from someone like Pedro Almodovar, he’s spent the past 30 years really honing a craft that is really brought to the fore in The Skin I Live In.
As a thriller, every beat and every twist is note perfect. He holds details from us in a way that leads to more of a shock when the actual turns of the plot come about. Many will hotly debate the final big turn that comes around two thirds into the film, some will find it ridiculous and others like me will find it shocking. But, for that story, it is a brilliantly kept secret. The reason why it works is because Almodovar is so self assured as a filmmaker and puts full confidence in his own style and his actors to carry dialogue and a story that does, at times, dangerously tiptoe along the tight rope of credibility.
At the centre is Antonio Banderas as Ledgard, who is back working with Almodovar after 20 years, and gives absolutely the performance of a lifetime. In his native Spanish language, he portrays more of a confidence than he usually exudes when working in the English language. But for him this is much more of a breath of fresh air. It is a very different role as in American film, he’s known for heroic roles such as Zorro and Puss In Boots. Robert Ledgard is as far away from heroic as he could possibly get.
At one glance you could feel sorry for the character, he lost his wife and his daughter is a sight unseen for him. His philanthropist work of rebuilding burn victims is commendable. However, his methods are unorthodox and the trapping of Vera, who is raped by a maniacal intruder, only works to make him less sympathetic. Later plot twists then make him thoroughly detestable. Banderas is brilliant, and however unlikely it may be, it would be great to see him in there as an Oscar nominee.
Also doing great work is Elena Anaya, who plays Vera. For a character trapped in a room for the majority of the film, it is a brave and very physical performance. She is clearly an actress who is not getting by solely on her stunning good looks. Her character goes through many vile acts of degradation and still manages to come out as arguably the strongest of all.
Almodovar regular Marisa Paredes is also a very neat addition to the cast and is great as usual. Despite most of her dialogue being mostly exposition, she pulls it off very well.
If one were to make a complaint about the film, the climax which is built up by some superb tension and neat little cutaways to guns in drawers becomes a little undercut by the final scene. The very final scene is typical Almodovar, we get a reunion between characters and it ends on a fairly philosophical line.
We’ve seen that device used regularly in his films and usually it works, famously in Talk to Her the line is: “I am a ballet teacher, nothing is simple.” Here we get something similar and this time it kind of doesn’t work, it is however only a minor complaint considering how nicely performed the scene is.
The film is a must see, a terrifically audacious and daring piece of cinema that deserves your attention. Personally I would love to see The Skin I Live In up for numerous awards come Oscar time, and not just for Foreign Language Film. Almodovar’s direction and Banderas performance deserve recognition, but the film offers so much more and is easily the best film I’ve seen all year.
Pedro Almodovar's The Skin I Live In, a terrific, twisty thriller that is one of the filmmaker's best and one of the year's best films.