The Skin I Live In (2011, Pedro Almodóvar)

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The Skin I Live In, credited as a horrific medical thriller in the Hitchcock mold, is really about as Hitchcockian as an early De Palma film — it masters none of the emotional drive or liveliness of the Master, but yeah, it has “twists” and teases in its own playful vein. In a departure for director Pedro Almodóvar, though, it has virtually no use for the humans it houses, uses them instead as pawns in a rather delirious, skeletal game. The story’s psychosexual underpinnings — essentially, a genderbending Frankenstein’s monster — are revealed incrementally, so that the bizarre tale you think you’re about to be told for the first half-hour turns out to be merely a prelude. In his closing moment, Almodóvar, as so many times before, manages to create something touching out of a perverse, almost freakish situation, but before that, he wanders up tangential alleyways to create a discomfortingly nonchalant horror story. Whether that’s your bag or not, it’s an audacious and clever film.

Me, I was enveloped by its initial perversity then by its Dressed to Kill-style sexual intrigue, which plays masterfully on silly taboos and legitimate anxieties but doesn’t do as much with them psychologically as you might hope. More than anything, the movie’s about the physical realm: skin, tongues, body parts, blood, necks, etc.; its concerns beyond that are limited to an Almodóvar fixation on voyeuristic impulse and familial conflict that isn’t fully exercised, certainly not with the humanistic fervor of something like Talk to Her. He’s simply having fun with the chess pieces; he wants us to have fun too, but a lot of us may be too squeamish.

As for me, I ended up spending a lot of time playing Spot the Source, which I sometimes do with movies I love, but here the allusions seemed a bit too on the nose. Some are obvious and surely intentional: Vertigo, Cinderella (not necessarily the film, but there is a discarded shoe), A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut (the garden of oversexed teens is something I’m willing to bet Kubrick would’ve wished he’d thought of, had he lived to see this), inevitably The Silence of the Lambs given its skin-creation theme, and just as inevitably Psycho and its too-numerous-to-name progeny. Like a number of De Palma’s films, this is like a Hitchcock ballet, specifically an impressionistic Psycho, paring down and summarizing that film’s image set, fused here of course with Vertigo, like those Saul Bass credits sequences that animate the plot of a given movie in the space of a few minutes.

But there are less overt and potentially inadvertent references here as well, some too much of a kick to deny — Duel and, of all things, Uncle Buck in rapid succession, for instance, when veiled mad-scientist figure Dr. Legard chases down a young man whom he believes raped his daughter, causing her to lose her fragile mind. But nothing is quite so glaring as the story’s similarity to a horrendous B-picture Almodóvar more than likely has never seen, the 1962 terror cheapie The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, a lurid spectacle in which a manipulative doctor experimenting with transplants rescues his bride-to-be’s decapitated head from the scene of a car wreck and proceeds to keep it breathing and functioning scientfically, against her will. He then haunts the streets at night in search of a prostitute who can unwittingly provide his wife’s new body! The film was famously mocked on Mystery Science Theater 3000, but the dread and awfulness of its concept clearly carry enough intrigue to, with a surprisingly small number of changes, become a compelling movie here. There’s even the whole series of expected conversations about how twisted and immoral, naturally, the good Doctor’s ideas are.

The Skin I Live In is at its best and most genuinely intriguing, however, when it diverts from any of its influences, real or imagined, and asks haunting questions about identity and gender that its ancestors never really touched. It manages to eke a feminist story out of the plight of a potential date rapist, turning him upside down and inside out and challenging all of his, and our, perceptions — while failing to demonize him or the man who turns him into a victim, whose fetishistic perversity nevertheless does him in. Almodóvar carefully refuses to offer vengeance to the audience, and at one point even threatens to give his wrenching parable a happy ending, which in this case would’ve been impossibly twisted, but he presses on to try and bring his protagonist full circle. The screenplay is adept at subtly weaving questions of desire and simply of being, the fabric of gender and human nature, into its dark and deftly presented tale.

Visually, Almodóvar sticks to an arid, sterile Cronenbergian environment well-suited to the scalpel and surgery-driven story, but this brightly, horrifically lit environment is a match for the unemotional and detached nature of much of the script, which sometimes seems to view its occupants as mere specimens. (Witness particularly a sequence of assault by a man in a tiger suit early on that has little to do with anything around it and offers little conceit to justify its existence in a movie already overstuffed with plot.) The forces running strongly against this impulse of Almodóvar’s to make a purely intellectual thriller, meanwhile, are the actors. Elena Anaya and Jan Cornet function remarkably in a nearly impossible situation that demands a lot of them both, but it’s Antonio Banderas in his best-of-career turn as the tragic, wounded, insane surgeon Ledgard that anchors the film. Given a role that Almodóvar has written with little opportunity for depth and soul, Banderas runs with it and crafts a conflicted, tortured man in the empty spaces. His is the art in this picture; he’s so perfect you can completely imagine that he’s doing this the way Cary Grant might have, and in that paid-off stunt-casting sense, at least, Alfred Hitchcock would most certainly have approved.

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