Milos Stehlik reviews Almodovar’s new film, 'The Skin I Live In'

December 9, 2011

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(Photo by Cannes Film Festival/HO/EPA)
Antonio Banderas and Elena Anaya in Pedro Almodóvar's 'The Skin I Live In'.

At his best, Almodovar – formerly known as Pedro Almodovar – is the most inventive of filmmakers. In his early works like Dark Habits and Labyrinth of Passion, Almodovar was a rebel, skewering Franco’s fascist government, the Catholic Church’s stranglehold on the Spanish mind, and the sexual hypocrisy of Spanish life. Almodovar’s love of movies informed his filmmaking, in particular Hollywood melodramas. Almodovar’s style became unique and sophisticated in his later films like, What Have I Done to Deserve This? or Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, or Tie Me Up! Time Me Down! and All About My Mother.  These films revealed intertwining plot lines, which lead off into unexpected directions, to surprising confrontations, betrayals, and romantic couplings and un-couplings.

An odd moral sensibility underlies Almodovar’s daring dispensation with linear narrative. This sensibility rests with the individual character rather than with structures or institutions. Most amazingly, Almodovar becomes a filmmaker who truly understands women and their vulnerability, but also the strength women find in their femininity. Almodovar’s heroines were not women who adopted machismo trappings to find self-realized and strength as they do in many contemporary Hollywood films. Almodovar’s women relish their femininity. They plunge into life, do it all, and often leave their men in the dust.

The Skin I live In, Almodovar’s newest film, stars Antonio Banderas as Robert Ledgard, a famous and reclusive plastic surgeon. He conducts experimental research at his fancy estate. There he holds captive, with the help of his housekeeper, a young woman named Vera. Soon, we teleport six years earlier into Almodovar’s universe. We arrive to a complicated plot twist. There we find Vicente, a young man who works in his mother’s dress shop and Norma, Robert’s daughter who lives under psychiatric care. Vicente tries to seduce her. Norma imagines her rape by her father and commits suicide. Robert, in disguise takes his revenge — kidnaps Vicente and performs sex reassignment surgery and turns him into a replica of his dead wife. All of this — and so much more — takes a bit of time to develop. It’s all served to the audience in narrative bits and pieces of the past and present.

Are you confused? Well, take heart. The problem with The Skin I live In is that it’s not confusing enough. Oddly and unfortunately, this film gives us few surprises. Detours in the plot come across as tired — mechanical — predictable. We’ve been there before with Almodovar, but those journeys were better — with more of the unexpected, less formulaic, more biting — and funnier. The Skin I live In is not particularly funny nor enough of a thriller to sustain its two hours. The cast, who mostly worked with Almodovar before, are all competent, but none of the characters are arresting or layered enough — except in a schematic way. As in his most recent films, Almodovar is a consummate craftsman. The film looks beautiful. Jean-Paul Gautlier even designed the costumes. But it feels so tired.

The filmmakers whom Almodovar had in mind when he made The Skin I live In were Fritz Lang and Georges Franju and their film Eyes Without A Face. But both Lang and Franju mastered the art of psychological horror. Almodovar tries to marry horror to high camp. If you think of horror and humor in film, the best is almost always unintentional. Think of Little Shop of Horrors or The Rocky Horror Picture Show or any number of B-movies like The Terror of Tiny Town. The Skin I live In creates its horror and humor by design and intent.

Unlike the plastic surgery, perfectly reconstructed by Robert, the doctor at the center of the film, Almodovar’s narrative seams and stitches are visible. The melodrama is without irony. Stripped of emotional engagement with the film’s characters, the audience has little to hang onto — except waiting for the end, whatever strange place that might be...

Milos Stehlik is the director of Facets Multimedia. His commentaries reflect his own views and not necessarily those of Facets Multimedia, Worldview or WBEZ.