By David Salazar
Pedro Almodovar is long famous for his controversial films. His earlier works, more so than his latest, tend to be more violent and confrontational in their approach. The opening sequence of "Matador" shows a man masturbating to the images of women getting mutilated while in another part of the world a woman seduces and kills a young boy. In "The Law of Desire," the viewer is asked to be behind the camera and watch as a young naked model masturbates while an off screen voice gives him direction. "Atame" was about a man kidnapping and torturing a woman until she finally falls in love with him. Almodovar has since taken a more subtle (though no less powerful) approach to his film making as evidenced by his brilliant works "All About my Mother," "Talk to Her", and more recently "Broken Embraces" and "Volver." "Bad Education" made in 2004 represented the only recent glimpse of the early Almodovar, but aside from that film, the disturbing fare of his early films has been kept in check of late.
"The Skin I Live in" is almost a return to this earlier style coupled with the refinement and subtle growth that Almodovar has found of late. Some have classified it as "torture porn" because of its violent nature, but to put it in the same ilk as such trash as the "Saw" franchise or the "Hostel" films (my opinion of course) would be a disservice to Almodovar and what he brings to his films. In fact, this film is impossible to classify into a genre. It can be seen as a retelling of the Frankenstein horror story coupled with science fiction, and a touch of the Hitchcock suspense thriller (particularly Vertigo). Almodovar has called it "a horror story without screams or frights."
One word to describe the film would definitely be disturbing. Antonio Banderas plays Dr. Ledgard, a mad scientist working on creating skin that is immune to burns and disease. He is forbidden to proceed with experimenting on animals by the science community, but Ledgard has already done his experiment on a human: Vera (Elena Anaya), a beautiful but mysterious woman that he holds captive in his large mansion. Who Vera is and why she is there make up the crux of the story and it is while Almodovar unravels this intriguing thread that the disturbing starts to take over. A man dressed in a tiger costume shows up at the front door. Multiple rapes take place. Murder, dangerous experiments, etc. The most impactful aspect of the film is how Almodovar manipulates Anaya's beauty to make the audience identify with Banderas' obsession with her and when he reveals who she really is, the film's most disturbing aspect takes complete hold of the viewer. I have mentioned that this film is more akin to Almodovar's earlier work than his later more restrained films. However there are moments that seem borderline tasteless and difficult to digest in his earlier work. Not the case in this film as the master clearly has better judgement over when enough is enough. That isn't to say that the film does not have difficult content, but it is surely more manageable than in earlier work.
The film represents the first time in 20 years that Banderas and Almodovar collaborate together. For me, Banderas' work with Almodovar still represents the best of his career. Here, Banderas, usually known for his charisma and charm, is everything but that. He remains practically expressionless throughout, maintaining the cool, calculating demeanor of a mad scientist. In his earlier work, men were seen as representatives of the repressive Spanish society, a motif and theme that had been relaxed in later films with regards to representations of males in Almodovar films. Ledgard represents a return to that identification of men as he holds Vera hostage. Elena Anaya also plays Vera in a collected, consistently expressionless being. These controlled portrayals by the two leads only add the rising tension throughout the film, almost like a chess match between two equal opponents. Marisa Paredes, also seen in multiple Almodovar films, makes a strong turn as Marilia, Ledgard's caretaker.
If there is something that can always be expected from an Almodovar film, it would be the pristine almost too perfect images. Unlike many modern filmmakers which will take to modern cinematic conventions with ease, Almodovar's use of the camera remains economic and completely controlled. He clearly understands the strengths and weaknesses of different techniques and employs them sparingly when they can have their greatest impact. Almodovar's films tend to have wide ranging palettes filled with vibrancy, but Jose Luis Alcaine's gorgeous cinematography in this film tends toward a darker and cooler palette.
Alberto Iglesias, one of the great film composers of today, gives the film a memorable score. The instrumentation is relatively light throughout: a piano and strings, a solo violin akin to a solo Bach Partita or Ysaye Sonata. But it adds tremendous energy and propulsion.
"The Skin I Live in" represents an interesting film considering the latest work Almodovar has created. But it enables the viewer to reflect on the growth and passion of the early Almodovar and his turn into a true cinematic master. If you have seen Almodovar's work, you know that he always knows how to shock you. This film is no different.