Sony // 2011 // 120 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // February 25th, 2012
A take of secrets, obsession and revenge.
"The things the love of a mad man can do."
Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas, Femme Fatale) is one of the world's most esteemed surgeons. He has participated in three of the nine facial transplant surgeries which have been performed to date, and claims that these experiences were the most rewarding of his life. He has a top-of-the-line operating room within his lavish home, where he lives with his loyal housekeeper Marilla (Marisa Paredes, The Devil's Backbone) and a beautiful, tormented prisoner named Vera Cruz (Elena Anaya, Talk to Her). The details of Vera's imprisonment are initially unknown, though we are informed that she bears a rather striking resemblance to Robert's late wife. Over the course of The Skin I Live In, we're slowly but surely given the strange details of how Robert and Vera found themselves in this unusual situation.
Midway through Pedro Almodovar's Broken Embraces, there's a conversation between two men attempting to hash out the details of a nutty erotic vampire thriller. The film they describe sounds both absurd and intriguing; you kind of want to see this imaginary flick just to see if it could work. Almodovar's The Skin I Live In feels like it could have been made by those guys. It's the loopiest movie the esteemed director has made to date, and quite possibly the chilliest. I imagine some will shake their heads in bewilderment at some of the plot developments which occur in the film's second half, but the level of fearless ambition on display is kind of intoxicating.
How on earth does one categorize this movie? It's a Cronenbergundian slice of thematically rich body horror punctuated with De Palma-style visual flourishes. It's an unsettling update of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein by way of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. It's a melodrama wrapped in bold, luscious colors and lurid plot developments. It's a twisted romance. It's...well, it's so many things, but it's unquestionably an Almodovar movie. His movies are such ravishing experiences; they occasionally fall apart in retrospect but completely grab you in the heat of the moment. Some may have more difficulty warming up to The Skin I Live In, as its queasy content (rape, kidnapping, surgery and a good deal of bloodletting) can prove squirm-inducing. Still, even as you wince at the horrors on display, you can't help but delight in Almodovar's fluid stylishness and his almost reckless incorporation of countless pop culture inspirations (it's easy to imagine the director smiling while naming one of his characters "Vera Cruz").
As is often the case in Almodovar's films, it doesn't take long before the drama turns to melodrama and the melodrama turns to opera. The movie intends to sweep you up in its current of feeling and visual flair; the whole affair might seem a bit silly if it doesn't really grab you on the surface. Even so, the film contains a generous amount of subtlety and nuance, particularly in the details of the characters it presents. Robert is essentially a monster (though to what degree is left cloudy for quite some time), but Banderas' icy pitilessness almost makes us pity him. The actor is naturally charismatic even in throwaway roles, but here manages to effectively depict a man almost entirely devoid of feeling. The casting of Banderas is effective, because we quickly sense what Robert is missing. Vera remains an enigma for much of the running time, but in retrospect we begin to appreciate some of the easily-ignored details Anaya slips into her performance. Few actresses have the bravery to tackle some of the scenes Anaya does in this film, as she plays a character who is constantly exposed (literally and otherwise) in a variety of immensely uncomfortable situations.
There are a number of "big twists" throughout The Skin I Live In, but Almodovar wisely underplays them. Like Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island, this is a movie more interested in its ideas and characters than in its twisty reveals, so it quietly foreshadows those developments in favor of placing the emphasis elsewhere. Almodovar's real interest is in human relationships; in the manner in which the outlandish circumstances he's created push people into unexpected emotional territory. There seems to be perpetually changing doses of affection and hatred in the relationship between Robert and Vera, but what are those emotions rooted in? It's more complex than a tug-of-war between reason and Stockholm Syndrome. The aforementioned proposed vampire film largely appealed to the writers because of its limitless, "potential for metaphor." Likewise, Almodovar's outlandish genre-bending exercise is fundamentally an opportunity to look at old ideas through a new lens.
As you might expect, The Skin I Live In (Blu-ray) looks gorgeous, sporting a sumptuous 1.85:1/1080p high definition transfer. Though the palette frequently employs an operating room sterility, Almodovar still frequently finds opportunities to employ his traditionally bold, vibrant colors. The images have a lot of pop and feel quite warm thanks to a very faint but consistent layer of grain. Flesh tones are perfect, detail is sublime throughout and blacks are deep and inky. This is a great-looking flick which benefits from a similarly impressive transfer. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is nearly as impressive, with Alberto Iglesias' hypnotically snaky score weaving its way through your speakers masterfully (Iglesias has been celebrated for his work on 2011's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but this film offers his strongest effort from that year). Dialogue is clear and robust, and a handful of louder moments deliver the kick they need. It's generally a pretty simple track, but one without any noteworthy flaws. Supplements aren't quite as generous as they initially appear: "The Making of The Skin I Live In" is divided into seven parts (leading me to think it would be a comprehensive doc), but it's actually just under 13 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage. Much more rewarding is "An Evening with Pedro Almodovar" (74 minutes), a lengthy Q&A at the University of Southern California. You also get a disposable "On the Red Carpet" (3 minutes) featurette, a trailer, BD-Live and a DVD Copy.
The Skin I Live In is another unforgettable effort from one of Spain's greatest directors. It's a bit more reckless than most of his movies, but its occasional inconsistency is overwhelmed by its consistent ambition. While I'd recommend proceeding with caution (viewers with delicate sensibilities may be turned off by the film's fairly graphic violence and nudity), it's a worthwhile effort which should prove rewarding for viewers who appreciate bold filmmaking.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Spanish, French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* DVD Copy
* Official Site