Wednesday 7 September 2011

‘The Skin I Live In’ (2011) - Another triumphant film by Pedro Almodovar

Thinking back, I think it was Almodovar’s ‘Tie me up, Tie me down’ (1990) that was the first foreign film, certainly the first Spanish film, that truly excited me and made me realise that there were contemporary film-makers elsewhere in Europe that had a vision that was quite extraordinary and one-of-a-kind, a breath of fresh air from stodgy (but enjoyable) British cinema. It was during an A-Level Spanish lesson that this film was shown to me as a break from language and vocabulary-learning. Just as when ‘The Mission’ (1986) was shown to me during a Geography lesson (randomly part of plate tectonics), this moment turned into a cinematic occasion that I would never forget. Today, twenty-one years after ‘Tie me up’, Almodovar’s films continue to bring me a huge amount of joy. They are always original and stylish, have a superbly crafted script and an inspired cast to mount these words onto the screen. I know it is not the politically-correct turn of phrase to describe Almodovar’s characters and narrative as like that of a ‘circus’ as he often deals with important issues such as transgender identity, homosexuality and transvestite lifestyle but I do feel that it does summon up the correct sense of large, often theatrical, set pieces accompanied by extravagant characters with dramatic acts to perform. However, where circus life is often equated with the ‘freak show’, or meaningless but entertaining performance, or else old-fashioned ideas of what constitutes something foreign or exotic, where human characters are superficially rendered and posed for audience naïve enjoyment, in Almodovar’s cinematic canvases the characters are far from skin-deep (sorry about this pun), far more than their sexuality or habits. His films show a new tolerant modernity emerging where being foreign to the norm is a characteristic we all inhabit and something we can all enjoy together.         

‘The Skin I Live In’ is a classic piece of Almodovar pie. It tells the story of a brilliant plastic surgeon, Robert, (played by Antonia Banderas) who due to the scarring of his wife in a car accident with her lover (and subsequent suicide due to her horror at her own visage) begins an unhealthy obsession with skin and muscle manipulation and transplantation. From a viewing of the trailer, immediately a ‘Frankenstein’ story springs to mind and one wonders whether this will be an Almodovar take on this classic story. However, this assumption would be wrong and the product of, frankly, an ineffective trailer. Robert’s surgical obsession finds form in the victim of Vera (played beautifully by Elena Ananya), a test subject held captive upstairs in his mansion home and private surgery premises. We learn early in the film that Elena has been moulded (physically and mentally) to be who she is today though to what extent one only understands as the story unravels. We note from characters such as his faithful, though morally questionable, housekeeper and accomplice, Marilia, that Vera has an amazing resemblance to his late wife…. Naturally I do not want to give away the story and spoil this delicious tale for you. My intention is only to describe the talent of Almodovar as he is able to take a seed idea like this and build multiple stories and implied meta-stories to complicate this basic line and show the varieties of motives always involved in one person’s act and the spectrum of routes that we, the audience, can view that same act. For instance we hear of Robert’s daughter many years back committing suicide, unable to deal with her mother’s suicide at her feet and her erroneous belief that her father, Robert, raped her. We learn of the housekeeper, Marilia, being both the secret mother of Robert and the mother of the man who stole Robert’s wife and left her burning in a crashed car as he fled. When she says that her womb gives birth to insanity, the words ring in our ears and we truly feel for her though, strangely, simultaneously distrust her. We can’t help but feel the mother must be like her sons. We meet the runaway son, a conventional madman, juxtaposed with the elegance and poise that the plastic surgeon brings to the same psychosis. He is dressed in a tiger suit straight from the carnival (this is not a euphemism; he literally is coming from a Spanish carnival). Further afield in the local town we meet the actual rapist of his daughter, Vicente. Unlike what one would expect, he is a soft-natured, talented seamstress and tailor at a local fashion boutique who appears to, on the one hand, be in love with or at least admire his lesbian colleague in a shy, schoolboy manner and, on the other hand, drop pills, ride a motorcycle and roll around the party scene with his attractive male friends looking for girls. Even his lesbian colleague and his mother, both fleeting characters for the most part, have stories attached to them through the director’s insinuation. One wonders whether a relationship is there between the two, even though they are years apart. We never know but we wonder due to subtle little moments of intimacy between the two women. This makes us wonder whether Vicente is attracted to his colleague because she is the sexual interest of his mother or because he feels usurped by her as the apple of his mother’s eye. The mother is cunningly counter-posed against Marilia, the housekeeper. This is not made blatant. I don’t think they are ever in a scene together. But they are the same age and where Vicente’s mother comes across as a dutiful, loving woman, the other comes across as epitomising motherhood as a perversity; where a son’s psychosis is allowed to run riot due to the enabling love of his mother.

As one would expect from the title of the film and from any understanding of how the director works, it is not a surprise that the notion of ‘skin’ is a running theme in the film. Think of all the phrases we know that involve skin and one can easily apply them to moments in the story. Almodovar gets under the skin of his characters both literally and metaphorically. His story peels like an onion, each individual shedding being translucent showing its inter-relationship to the wider story and to the other characters around and within. Most of all, Almodovar uses the idea of skin as an underlying metaphor associating it with private identity and hidden sexuality/homosexuality. One notes the subtlety with which this is transported to us on screen: the hose-washing of Vicente where his clothes stick to his body; the body-suit designed to mould and hold the body in shape (assistance and captivity in an ‘all-in-one’); the tiger costume of the estranged son of Marilia, ridiculous yet manipulatively designed for emotional impact on his mother. In this film, skin is not private, it is not sacred, it is not a surface which signals one to stop. It is penetrative and abusable. It is porous and osmotic, breathing in disappointments and regret and giving out poisonous psychosis and lies.     

It is hard not to be carried away in describing the artfulness of this film. I hope I have tantalised you enough to see ‘The Skin I live In’ as it is indeed a triumph. No less for the return of Antonio Banderas to our screens as a controlled, strong, inspiring lead. The film reminds us of the quality of acting Banderas once gave us in his early films such as (here is my full circle, wait for it…) Almodovar’s ‘Tie me up, Tie me down!’ I remember that was the first time I saw him on screen and he really did carry that film just as he carries this one twenty-one years later. Here we see Banderas utterly at ease, working his actor muscles once again under a director that surely must be his muse or visa versa. We suddenly forget the ills of ‘Zorro’ (that sounds like the title of the film – it isn’t), the average ‘Desperado’ and pretty bad ‘Once upon a Time in Mexico’, the ‘Spy Kids’ franchise and the comedy Spanish cat in the Shrek films that frankly any actor could have undertaken. We forget all of this and remember his stunning performance in ‘Evita’ and ‘Frida’. Ironically the roles he has been given by Hollywood have been to spotlight him as a cool, sexy male character with that ‘oh-so-Spanish’ esoteric charm. Yet I do not think he has ever looked as cool and as sexy (and has as much charm) as he does in this movie. In this film we see in Banderas, shades of Christian Bale in ‘American Psycho’ (2000) where being psychotic involves a mixture of nonchalance at the absurd, skilfulness at execution and a selection of the best suits money can buy. This film is proof that Banderas is a good actor without good roles. If Hollywood can’t find them, I suggest he goes back to good ole Almodovar.         

Jana Manuelpillai

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