Pedro Almodóvar has always been particular about style and even more particular about substance. He reinforces, not only these particulars and peculiarities but adds a dimension of moral ambiguity into the mix in his brilliant The Skin I Live In. His first in the thriller genre and a welcome return to work with the, more than accomplished, devilishly handsome Antonio Banderas as his leading man. His latest is a film about captivity taken to fetishistic (s)extremes. It’s the collision of our outward respectability meeting our tortured obsessions and survival through escaping within ourselves. The highly sensitive nature of the plot prohibits any further detail, but rest assured Almodóvar presents exquisite portraits of these prisoners with detailed surgical precision that are as sensational as they are arresting. True to form he also finds time to embellish the proceedings with a voyeuristic elegance and a brutish sexuality, all that was needed however was a confident resolution to match the outlandish propositions.
Set in the gorgeous medieval darkness of the small town of Toledo, Spain, the eminent surgeon Dr. Robert Ledgard (Banderas) is a model of taste and distinction, as accomplished as he is elegant. His mansion is a secure fortress where he privately conducts his experimental work on pain resistant skin. Ably assisted by his long term confidant the elderly Marilia ( Marisa Paredes) who also tends to a mysterious third resident, the captive but beautifully fragile Vera (Elana Alaya). Her devine femininity as seen early on completely enslaves us to the immediate power in this film. Not to mention, it sets us straight about the stranglehold each character has on each other. In these opening gambits, Almodóvar is meticulous and confident like Dr Ledgard himself; in his bold use of colour, in his ultra-modernist set design, in his Scorsese-like camera angles and also in the turbulent musical scoring. This delicate balance of power however, is violently shattered with the arrival of the beastly Zeca, estranged son of Marilla and thus begins the morbid and time shifting descent into the tortured world of Dr Ledgard. It’s a case of past determining future. The deeper we go back, the more we bring forward and the more we are placed at moral crossroads. Again, I will say no more of the plot. Interestingly, the more we look into this film the more the references and evocations come to the fore. Most obvious is Hitchcock’s Vertigo with the Scottie -Madeleine dynamic, seasoned cinephiles will, of course , find more.
Of all the performances, none is more central and exacting than Banderas’ obsessive Doctor Ledgard, juxtaposing his serial attractiveness with a pathological menace, he stays complete and determined to the very end. Contrast this with the fragility and volatility that Elena Alaya’s Vera brings to the picture and we have something near to a modern masterpiece in the vein of a Dr Frankenstein and the previously mentioned Vertigo. The only point of contention is the climax. Regardless, The Skin I Live In is a magnificent collection of ideas, images and characters skillfully and artfully presented by the ‘El Greco’ of Spanish Cinema.
The Skin I Live In hits UK cinemas 26th August 2011.
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Stars:Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Jan Cornet