“Austere” is how Pedro Almodóvar describes the style he strove for in his new film, The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito) whose story of an unscrupulous plastic surgeon who creates a forced sex change to simultaneously “replace” his lost wife and avenge the rape of his daughter evokes B-horror. “Austere” may sound pretty ironic given the lush beauty of the images, the intensity of the music, the rich, beautifully lit sets, and the handsome actors elegantly dressed by Paco Delgado, working with Jean Paul Gaultier. But in this film, whose screenplay is adapted from Mygale, a noir novel by the French writer Thierry Jonquet, Almodóvar does hold back a measure of his usual humor, jaunty color, and over-the-top campiness. Although there are moments, as when a husky man in a cat suit bares his ass for a surveillance camera so his mother will recognize him, that are absurd and funny. Antonio Banderas, who starred in the director’s earliest films, is back, at 51, looking every inch the glossy but slightly over-the-hill B-picture leading man and exercising impeccable restraint as the evil co-protagonist.
“Strange,” “twisted,” and “surreal” are words that have been applied to Jonquet’s novel. Almodóvar has beautifully elaborated and elucidated that original and removed some of the rougher and more poignant elements. As he retells it, the tale gradually reveals its secrets so the revelations are satisfying rather than surprising and odd rather than moving, though the film’s images themselves at times provide an exquisite pleasure. Jonquet’s very short novel is ingeniously plotted. At the heart of it, as retold here, is a beautiful woman who is kept prisoner and who hates her victimizer but somehow cannot break away from him. It’s a gender-bending sado-masochistic tale. A plastic surgeon loses his wife in a car accident in which she is terribly burned. She lives a while, but as her doctor husband is trying to save her, sees her charred, mutilated skin in a mirror and is so horrified she throws herself out the window. A daughter, psychologically delicate, is raped by a young man at a party where they are both high on drugs, hers medicinal, his recreational. She subsequently goes mad and throws herself out the window too. The young rapist works with puppets and with women’s dresses and has a feminine side. The doctor kidnaps him and over a six-year period, transforms him into a beautiful woman who resembles his lost wife — and has a skin that is impervious to fire. Needless to say, the relationship between doctor and imprisoned patient is uncomfortable, and it becomes strangely ambivalent.
The theme is one in which personality is seen as not tied to gender. Nor, evidently, is film quality tied to genre, since Almodóvar is evoking trashy Hollywood film but adding a high-art gloss. As Amy Taubin has written in Art Forum, Skin “effortlessly synthesizes the mad-scientist horror flick; a contemporary resetting of a nineteenth-century grand opera narrative (motored by the desire for revenge and filled with dark family secrets); and the most perverse strain of the Hollywood ‘Woman’s Picture,’ where the heroines are wrongly imprisoned in insane asylums or hospitals and treated as sadistically as lab rats.”
The director may see himself as a kind of Dr. Frankenstein himself, and also as a Pygmalian: he has played Henry Higgins to stars like Banderas and Penélope Cruz. His “victims” in this film are Vicente (Jan Cornet), the rapest, and Vera (Elena Anaya). The evil doctor is Robert Ledgard (Banderas), whose ambiguity is perfect: he never seems anything but bland and impeccable. And his victims embrace him, and their new identity. Essential to Robert’s elaborate house/clinic fortress is his housekeeper, Marilia (Marisa Paredes), who also seems to be everybody’s mother. The prisoner is Vera, forced to wear a skin-colored body suit, sometimes masked, often operated upon, alternately trying to escape, commit suicide, kill Robert, or seduce him and make him her life partner. After an outsider’s intrusion, a series of flashbacks describe Robert’s daughter (Blanca Suarez) and Vicente (Jan Cornet), and tell us how they met and Vera came to be under Robert’s care/control.
I find this film much more fascinating than Almodóvar’s last two films, Volver and Broken Embraces, and his most haunting since Talk to Her. However I agree with the opinion Justin Chang expresses in his Variety review, that the director held back from fully embracing the darkness and perversity of his subject and, caught up in making something enchantingly beautiful, fails to get under our skin where we live as much as he should. The images shot by José Luis Alcaine are gorgeous. The interiors designed by Antxon Gomez are so original and handsome I wished I could linger over them longer. Alberto Iglesias’ sweeping, pumped-up score is almost overwhelming, intoxicating. There are overt homages to Louise Bourgeois’s sexually taunting sculptures, which are related somehow to the handicraft of Vicente: despite his relative “austerity” this time, as usual, Almodóvar provides more material than we can easily absorb. And on the other hand, according to Chang, he has elided some of the novel’s “most emotionally rich passages.” So once again it seems despite ample evidence of intelligence and rich cinematic talent and more power than other recent efforts, Almodóvar has allowed style to overwhelm substance. The fascinating gender (and genre) themes would haunt us more if there were more feeling.
La piel que habito debuted at Cannes in May 2011, followed by international film festivals and theatrical releases since the spring in various countries. Sony Pictures begins limited US release October 14, 2011. French and UK releases were August 17 and 26, respectively. Shown as one of the gala events of the main slate of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, where it was screened for this review.
DIRECTOR/WRITER: PEDRO ALMODÓVAR
STARS: ANTONIO BANDERAS, ELENA ANAYA, JAN CORNET, MARISA PAREDES
RUNTIME: 117 MINS