There’s no denying that Pedro Alomodóvar is the darling of European cinema. Each new release comes with the expectation of greatness, but his latest, an arthouse update of Frankenstein with a touch of body horror a la Cronenberg, could prove to be his greatest crossover success.
The Skin I Live In, which is based on the novel Tarantula by Thierry Jonquet, also marks the first time in 21 years that he has worked with Antonio Banderas, the last time being on the darkly comic Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! when he played Ricky, an escapee from a mental institution who tracks down a pornstar he once slept with to convince her to marry him. When she refuses he takes her hostage.
In many ways Banderas’s character in this could be seen as an older version of Ricky – if, in the two decades, he had learnt how to perform plastic surgery. In The Skin I Live In Banderas plays Robert Ledgard, a brilliant doctor who has developed a synthetic form of skin in humans that is able to protect against all ailments. He carries out his experiments on Vera (Elena Anaya), the enigmatic human guinea pig he keeps locked away in his mansion, away from the disapproving gaze of the scientific community. She wears a full-body suit to protect her delicate skin and is looked after by Marilia, played by Alomodóvar favourite Marisa Parades. However, when Marilia’s brutish son, Zeca (Roberto Alamo), arrives unexpectedly one day, he threatens to expose the doctor’s entire operation.
But that isn’t the whole story and I’m wary of revealing anymore of it for, as previous ‘Almodramas’ such as All About My Mother or Talk to Her have proven, it is the
complex web of lies and deception which the Spanish director weaves around his characters in the ensuing revenge story that enthrals.
And all the filmmaker’s traits are present and correct here: an emphasis on male, often
sexual, obsession (Robert gazes at the enlarged screen image of Vera’s naked sleeping body); farcical melodrama (the entire section where Zeca ties his mother up and pursues Vera in the mansion dressed as a tiger); a kitsch aesthetic (the gothic mansion’s decor); and the demonstration of an extensive knowledge of film. It’s this characteristic of Alomodovar’s oeuvre that sets The Skin I Live In apart from the rest of his films and could see it perform well in English language territories.
The film owes a cinematic debt to the body horror of David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, the gothic tone of Frankenstein and the set design and chills of Georges Franju’s Eyes without a Face. Robert is a modern day mad scientist of horrors old, haunted by the death of his wife who he seems to be keeping alive in Vera’s image. But don’t expect a gore-fest; this is horror by subtle suggestion.
With his latest, Alomodóvar has both broken new ground and stayed true to what has made him a leading auteur. The Skin I Live In is a tense, uncomfortably humorous, sumptuously shot pseudo-horror with stellar performances and a twist in the tale that will leave you reeling.
The Skin I Live In (2011), directed by Pedro Alomodóvar, is distributed by Twentieth Century Fox, Certificate 15.