Friday, April 27, 2012

The Skin I Live In

The Skin I Live In (aka La Piel Que Habito) (Pedro Almodóvar, 2011) The Spanish director sets up an intriguing situation before he provides any explanation: a woman, Vera (Elena Anaya) in a skin-tight body-suit spends her days in a safe-room of a palatial estate, overseen by an older woman (Marisa Paredes) who keeps her isolated, delivering meals by dumb-waiter.  Yoga, stretching exercises make up the bulk of her day, but there are the occasional distractions and tantrums, like ripping up every dress in her closet, the appearance of the older woman's crazy son (who stages a violent attack on the premises and her) and the visits of Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), brilliant, obsessed plastic surgeon, who is doing research on synthetic skins, able to resist fire and insect bites.  Interesting research, if slightly peculiar, and a lot of it seems to encompass Vera, who has a cordial, distant relationship with the man on the other side of the monitor.

The questions swirl around the set up: Who is she?  What's she to him?  Why her?  Why the security and isolation?

What's the story?

Almodóvar will provide the explanation, certainly, in due time (even if we have to wait for the end of the movie, in some of his cases), but the answers will come eventually, making the director a firm practitioner of the mystery genre. But The Skin I Live In also touches on horror themes (with one particular horror film reverberating throughout), with a touch of science-fiction thrown in this time, while still firmly housed in the twisted vine of a villa that house Almodovar's interests: love, sex, obsession, sexual identity, generational influence, and the definition of "self."  At the same time, Almodóvar shows once again that he is the true inheritor of the Hitchcock mantle, as he explores many of the same themes of The Master of Suspense, but going places Hitchcock (or even Brian De Palma, for that matter!) wouldn't dare go.

For Ledgard (I keep wanting to call him "Lodger"—Hitchcock again) is using the subject to reclaim the past in the same way that, say, Scottie Ferguson does in Vertigo.  It's not love that drives him, it's not even revenge, it is obsession, and that Vera is tied up (or tied down) in all of it, as the answer to his dreams and nightmares...and fantasies, for good or ill, wraps things up in one tidy, stitched together, bandaged package.  That he has doppelgänger, and mother issues (as most of  Almodóvar 's protagonists do) only cements him further in the Hitchcockian basement.  And that he's played by Banderas, outwardly controlled—although he's played his share of crazies—shows that same pathology that Sir Alfred would wring out of his star-name actors...just under the skin.  

And as great as Banderas is here, though submerged, the lion's share of the movie belongs to, and is shouldered by, Elena Anaya.  It's only when the movie's done that you realize the fine line she had to walk, and the issues she had to skirt, in order to make the movie work as well as it does.  It's tough to pull off a role this emotional while remaining something of a cypher...and a mystery.

This one will have you thinking for a long time afterwards, and not just in piecing it together.  There are themes, sub-themes, and subcutaneous layers that fold and crease and support each other, that will surprise and even crrep you out.  And it will make you ask questions. And make you think.

As any good horror movie should.

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