The Skin I Live In La Piel que habito

Art & Culture

Ten years ago, Pedro Almodovar was – to my mind – one of the best directors in the world. But in the decade since then, he has struggled to maintain the same level of excellence, and his new film does nothing to rebuild his status. It’s not that it’s bad, but it falls short of outstanding.

Like many of his narratives, there are twists and turns, which explanation will only spoil. Suffice it to say that the main character is a surgeon, played by Antonio Banderas, who specialises in skin and face transplants. Under his care is a young woman called Vera, who has been living in his house for a long period under circumstances which are not quite clear. Is she a prisoner or a patient? How did she come to be there in the first place? What are his intentions towards her?

More is revealed as the film progresses and we go back several years in time, to uncover the tragic event that has led Vera to be in the house, encased in an artificial skin to protect her – but from what? There is also an older woman in the house, who seems to combine being a mother and a nursemaid, and again her relationship to the protagonists is not entirely clear. My question is – why should we care what happens to these people in a plot who is four parts melodrama to one part Oedipal revenge fantasy?

Almodovar’s film is beautiful, which is almost a given. His composition of shot, his choice of colour, and his use of music are exquisite. But that is not enough unless they are supporting a deeper purpose and meaning. And that is where I remain unconvinced. For me, there is also a problem with his choice of leading actor. Banderas is an inexpressive actor at the best of times, and given that he is playing a variation on the mad scientist role beloved of film archetypes, he doesn’t add much to the film. We neither sympathise with him, nor dislike him intensely. He is simply a rather obsessive person who cold-bloodedly pursues a course of action which is – to say the least – extreme.

As far as I can understand, Almodovar has chosen to embark on a series of films which play with genre, and in that sense, this is a kind of revenge/horror movie which borrows from a famous French film called Les Yeux Sans Visage (Eyes Without A Face). There are all sorts of subtexts about sexuality, dysfunctional parent/child relationships, and even a twist on his own earlier film with Banderas, Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down. But I feel that he has lost some of the playful humour of his earlier films, and has also moved on from the intensely felt humanity of his best films (Talk To Her and All About My Mother). Instead we get a kind of formalised melodrama, in which style and technique take precedence over content and emotion. As a result, his films are to be admired rather than appreciated at a more visceral level


Phil Raby

Front Row Films

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