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

"The Skin I Live In"
Jose Haro

Pedro Almodovar's latest stars Antonio Banderas as a plastic surgeon searching for the man who raped his daughter, played by Elena Anaya.

Almodóvar tries his hand at science fiction of a sort, but never abandons his favored themes of identity, anxiety and betrayal.

Antonio Banderas stars as a mad scientist/plastic surgeon in the Spanish director's latest exploration of identity, anxiety and betrayal, writes Kirk Honeycutt.

CANNES -- As implausible as it might seem, the cinema world of Pedro Almodóvar just got stranger in The Skin I Live In (La Piel Que Habito). Along with such usual Almodóvar obsessions as betrayal, anxiety, loneliness, sexual identity and death, the Spanish director has added a science-fiction element that verges on horror. But like many lab experiments, this melodramatic hybrid makes for an unstable fusion. Only someone as talented as Almodóvar could have mixed such elements without blowing up an entire movie.

With Antonio Banderas returning to the fold to play the mad-scientist protagonist, Sony Pictures Classics is assured that more than the Almodóvar faithful will show up for its North American release. Reactions will vary, as it’s hard to tell just how much of this is being delivered with tongue-in-cheek panache or how emotionally invested the auteur is in his Dr. Frankenstein character.

That doctor would be Banderas’ character, Dr. Robert Ledgard, an eminent plastic surgeon and university researcher. As befits his profession, Robert looks like he stepped out of the pages GQ. Yet his face conveys a sense of dark purpose. And he works out of a clinic in his own suburban, highly isolated and secure compound outside Toledo.

He presents colleagues with a paper indicating he has been researching the creation of a new and better, stronger skin that considerably bends the boundaries of bioethics. The audience by this point is well aware that confined within his mansion is a young woman, Vera (Elena Anaya), who is being molded — there is no other word for it — to the doctor’s specific requirements. And that would be to largely resemble his late wife, who was burned beyond recognition in a car crash and chose to die rather than to live in such ruined skin.

Vera wears a skin-colored body stocking like a second skin and spends much of the time in a series of yoga positions. These help her to reach an inner core of selfhood the doctor can never touch.

Then a man in a tiger costume (Roberto Alamo) breaks into the house. He’s in tiger skin because it’s Carnival time, but you suspect Almodóvar would have found any excuse to put him into that costume to achieve the image of a tiger on the prowl for Vera.

There is first a sexual and then a violent encounter, which leads to revelations about the relationship between the doctor and the tiger-man, and between the men and Robert’s housekeeper (Marisa Paredes). Then the movie flashes back six years, which introduces two more characters, Robert’s daughter (Blanca Suárez) and a local youth (Jan Cornet) who sets his sights on the young, emotionally fragile woman while he is high on pills at a party.

To describe any further the story, written by Agustin and Pedro Almodóvar from a novel by Thierry Jonquet, would spoil several surprises. While Almodóvar is clearly rummaging through old films and film genres that by his own admission include Buñuel, Hitchcock, Lang and Franju as well as Hammer horror and Dario Argento kitsch, he mostly is going after the theme of identity. As the old saying goes, beauty is only skin deep, to which Almodóvar adds that skin can only encase one’s identity or soul. For the skin can change, the soul cannot.

Throughout the movie there are references to the French-born American artist and sculpture Louise Bourgeois  — Vera looks through a book of her art — and the story picks up many of sculpture’s themes revolving around the human body and its need for nurturing in a hostile world and about the death or exorcism of the father figure.

For Robert is both a father figure and Frankenstein creator who seeks to dominate all women and eliminate male rivals. Yet Almodóvar treats him as “mad” and therefore not fully responsible for his villainy. He is the product of a twisted family and household. The women in his life — his wife, daughter and the guinea pig  — all suffer because he has suffered. So Almodóvar’s embrace of his crazed characters is a tender one, full of passion and comic glee.

The film’s design, costumes and music, especially Alberto Iglesias’ music, present a lushly beautiful setting, which is nonetheless a prison and house of horror. Almodóvar pumps his movie full of deadly earnestness and heady emotions. There are well-timed laughs that lessen the melodrama and underscore that Almodóvar remains ever a prankster. No one is better at tying imagery to emotions, yet even Almodóvar realizes that, as Hitchcock would say, “It’s only a movie, Ingrid.”

Venue: Cannes Film Festival, Competition (Sony Pictures Classics)
Sales: Filmation Entertainment
Production companies: El Deseo D.A., S.L.U.
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes, Jan Cornet, Roberto Alamo, Blanca Suárez, Eduard Fernádez
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Screenwriters: Agustin Almodóvar, Pedro Almodóvar
Based on a novel by: Thierry Jonquet
Producers: Agustin Almodóvar, Esther Garcia
Director of photography: José Luis Alcaine
Production designer: Antxon Gómez
Music: Alberto Iglesias
Costume designer: Paco Delgado, with the collaboration of Jean-Paul Gaultier
Editor: José Salcedo
No rating, 116 minutes