Yet again I find myself sitting in the dark waiting for one of my most anticipated films of this year’s Cannes film festival, and am met with a chorus of coughs ringing around the screen. Here’s a thought – if you are allergic to either a) the dark or b) the cinema, maybes it’s time you stopped going. It sounds like a bloody Victorian bronchitis convention every time the lights go down…
Anyway, The Skin I Live In (also known as The Skin That I Inhabit, depending on how you translate the original Spanish title), is the latest in this year’s auteur-focused Competition line-up, and thanks to both director Pedro Almodovar‘s assertions that he set out to make a horror “without screams or frights” and his reunion with sometime muse Antonio Banderas, this one sat at the top table in terms of anticipation.
Warning, there be a few spoilers below, though I have tried to avoid as many as possible. But like Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, such is the nature of the film that some hints are a necessity.
The synopsis, and the announcement that the film is based on Thierry Jonquet’s Tarantula suggest that the film is about a plastic surgeon who is devoted to the twin concerns of researching and inventing a synthetic skin for humans that is near impervious (after the death of his wife in a fire), and gaining vengeance on the man who raped his teenage daughter. He also has a darker secret, a mysterious figure he keeps locked in his house who he uses as a guinea pig to test out his not-quite moral/legal experiments. So that would make it sort of a mad scientist meets good old fashioned vengeance thriller, then? Well not quite, because Almodovar is up to some tricks here, and everything released so far dedicated to the film looks to have been a hugely successful agenda of misdirection. The clever Dickens.
Just under twelve hours before this screening, the credits rolled on Takeshi Miike’s Hara Kiri, whose non-mentalness seemed almost entirely at odds with the reputation and former works of its notoriously “interesting” director, prompting me to comment on the welcome change of direction. At first sight, The Skin I Live In follows a similar tract, with the near-farcical elements seeming something of a departure for the Volver director, but really, we have a lot of the usual Almodovar tricks on display: there are nods towards gender and sexuality, a complex, alinear narrative structure, that familiar irreverent humor mixed with melodrama and a beautiful, glossed aesthetic. It just happens that the mix is somewhat different: thanks to the thriller/horror intentions, Almodovar dials up the melodrama and creates a claustrophobic under-current of tension (at least at the start), but his twist is to present it as a noirish farce that consciously embraces how utterly bat-shit crazy the whole affair is. So rather than a darkly grim goresploitation flick (which there are innumerable hints at), The Skin I Live In becomes more of an exploitation of the exploitation genre, knowingly winking at the camera and side-swiping the tension with its own brand of irreverence.
This is the antidote to films like Saw and Hostel, where the pleasure is supposed to be in the bloody vengeance, or just downright overzealous violence perpetrated by the villains: here Almodovar shares a laugh with the audience at how ridiculous that form of entertainment is, and rather than celebrate the bodily violence and the malevolent machinations behind it, he presents his villain as a tragic fool, and his victim likewise. To achieve that end, the director sticks to his agenda of misdirection – early images very much suggest a fetishistic fascination with images of the body: Robert’s house is covered in nude art for instance, and the composition of certain scenes presents the body in exactly the same clinical way that we see the doctor’s experiments shown. As with most art devoted to this fetishism (and obsessed by the idea of conquering the body), there is also a sexual element, as Robert turns voyeur, and there is even an oddly comically-toned rape scene thrown in for good measure.
The revelation that the film is something else entirely is very stirring, since it begins on such a different and far darker tract which gradually subsides into humor and farce. But make no mistake, while there are genuinely silly moments that inspire laughter, some of the “jokes” are funny because of the discomfort they inspire: there is still an element of situational horror, as we are encouraged to empathize more with Robert’s victim as her personal tale is revealed to us, and as the jigsaw pieces fall into place, it becomes plainly obvious that the joke of the piece is the level of Robert’s utter insanity. The completed puzzle of who his guinea pig is acts as final confirmation, and Almodovar has created a pitch-perfect, jarringly obtuse mad scientist piece.
In the lead, Antonio Banderas is a picture of simmering menace: he has a tangible intensity that he has always brought to roles, and his handling of the comic demands of the role is perfect. His is also one of Almodovar’s most convincing male roles, even if there is something magically deceptive in him. Alongside him, the contagiously beautiful Elena Anaya is a great foil, and her energy is such that we fully invest in her tragedy and I would suspect that this film will spell an opportunity for her to follow up her few Hollywood roles (notably, but unfortunately in Van Helsing for instance).
In light of some of the films included, this festival has quickly become an arena of healthy debate surrounding the Art vs Entertainment question (check out the latest Reject Radio for FSR’s own take on it), and it seems that Almodovar is firmly of the second camp. Or at least he makes films that intend to be entertaining through their artistry, rather than simply being statement pieces like The Tree of Life will probably forever be accused/defended of, and The Skin I Live In is firmly one of the director’s most purely entertaining films to date.
The Upside: A triumphant mix of insane, noirish thriller with a wonderful note of parody and two very impressive lead performances.
The Downside: If it had been just a little bit more creepy, we’d have been talking about an incredible movie, and not just a very good one.