Monday, December 12, 2011

La piel que habito (The Skin I Live In)

Dr. Ledgard is held captive by the object of his obsession.
In La piel que habito (The Skin I Live In) the brilliant, yet mad scientist Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) holds a beautiful woman, with a shocking and mysterious past, captive in his expansive mansion. As the months and years go by, he experiments on her relentlessly, trying to perfect a new kind of skin. Ledgard's obsession is two-fold, as not only is he attempting to create this new skin (which might have saved his wife who perished in the aftermath of a car accident) but he is attempting to create a whole new person in his test subject Vera who, no matter how she is altered on the outside, fights to retain her identity. The movie opens in the present day as Dr. Ledgard, who watches Vera longingly on the cameras he sets up in her sterile, but well-appointed cell, saves her from yet another suicide attempt. It's implied that this is nowhere near her first try. She begs for him to let her die, but he will have none of it. In his own way, he has fallen in love with her. After a  bizarre interlude with a maniac dressed as a tiger who forces his way into their unconventional home, the movie flashes back 6 years into the past and we learn how things came to be this. The movie twists and turns quite a bit from there, but to describe the plot any further would spoil it.

I've only seen a couple of Almodovar's other films, but his trademarks are readily apparent in the presentation of The Skin I Live In's story. Notwithstanding the darker aspects of the plot, Almodovar arranges it in a bright and colorful fashion. The camera caresses Vera's perfectly formed body lovingly as she bleeds out from cutting her wrists; a man dressed in a vibrant tiger suit commits a violent and brutal act of rape. The pace is relentless and the energetic, soaring score perfectly compliments the movie's relentless intensity. Even with all of the film's visual florishes, they never distract from the action; the marriage of events and style is seamless.

The acting, especially from the two leads, is fantastic. Banderas, whom I've never really been a fan of, excels playing the brooding, charismatic and unhinged Ledgard. Layering his typical easy charm with the occasional frightening hint of his passionate obsessions, he flawlessly walks a fine line between disgusting the audience  and inspiring a great amount of sympathy for the character. No matter how extreme his actions become, one always understands them; though we never condone his madness as he descends into the chaotic world of the carnal pleasures of the flesh. Banderas proves here that when handed a rich and darkly realized role he is more than up to the task.

Equal to his barely restrained ferocity, however, is the enigmatic and resilient Elena Anaya who portrays the captive Vera. She imbues her performance with desperation and cunning, seduction and a manic frenzy. Once we return to the present day, and understand the true extent of her transformative journey, the underlying nuances of her character--which recall her shrouded past--are given context and allow you to completely appreciate her dexterous performance.

Almodovar also deserves praise for his apt handling of the film's "twist". I'm reluctant to call it a real twist per se as he handles it in such a straight-forward and matter of fact fashion. In hindsight, though I did not see it coming, Almodovar foreshadows the revelation in a way that makes it seem obvious and as you watch the plot unfold, you want to smack your forehead and say "Of course... it really couldn't be any other way!" Therein lies the brilliance of this movie. Regardless of the outlandish characters, and the equally extravagant happenstances they find themselves in, the film remains entirely believable. It's absurd in many ways, but the world of The Skin I Live In is an absurd one and so, like the pieces of an abstract puzzle, everything fits together perfectly while we, the audience, reap the benefits.

Gleenneen16's rating: *****/*****

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