Review: The Skin I Live In (La Piel Que Habito) (2011)

Director: Pedro Almodóvar

****

The Skin I Live In may be slightly more high concept than most of Pedro Almodóvar’s work, but within this classiest of horrors lie the key themes of all of the Spaniard’s work to date: isolation, obsession with external beauty and the strength of women.

Antonio Banderas may not the first name one thinks of upon hearing the words ‘mad scientist’, but it’s an apt description for his character Dr. Robert Ledgard. With the assistant of his housekeeper Marilia (Marisa Paredes), Ledgard is developing a new kind of human skin tissue that is resistant to external damage. Presenting his work to his colleagues, Ledgard claims to have tested the skin only on mice. His test subject Vera (the stunningly beautiful Elena Anaya) is no mouse; Ledgard kidnapped her years before and has given her the perfect skin in return for a life of imprisonment. Driven by memories of the accident that scarred and ultimately killed his wife, Ledgard is a scarily determined take on Dr. Frankenstein. Anger and pain is written all over Banderas’ face and, as flashbacks tell us of how Vera came to be imprisoned by Ledgard, his emotions and his ambitions become more identifiable and more repugnant simultaneously. Banderas shines with a performance of great intensity.  Anaya is suitably alluring but, being an Almodóvar heroine, is also capable of great courage and strength. A surprise visit by Marilia’s criminal son (Roberto Álamo) sees Vera at her most courageous and vulnerable all at once.

As reflected in the characterizations, this is very much an Almódovar film. DP José Luis Alcaine captures the bright Spanish sunshine beautifully, whilst Alberto Iglesias’ score recalls Bernard Herrmann’s work for Hitchcock, particularly Vertigo, which Almodóvar claims as a major influence on The Skin I Live In. In its most bizarre moments, it also recalls Eyes Without A Face and even more recent ‘gornos’ like Martyrs. Despite a notable lack of bloodshed, horror runs through The Skin I Live In.  As we learn of the assault of Ledgard’s daughter (Bianca Suárez) by Vicente (Jan Cornet), and the effects of that attack on Ledgard, Almodóvar’s ability to wring clear human emotion from the most unlikely circumstances shines through. The plot twists and turns wildly, and this may turn some viewers off. If you stick with The Skin I Live In, though, you’ll be rewarded with a horror film that will turn your brain on and haunt it, instead of just turning your stomach.

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