Sunday, November 06, 2011
Pedro Almodóvar's The Skin I Live In
tatiana de la tierra
I came home from Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In to tend to the eight-inch wound on the inside of my left arm. I unraveled gauze, peeled off sticky tape, observed mottled dressing before tossing it. Then I dabbed it with Betadine and taped gauze squares over it again. My incision is jagged, serpentine, and mean-looking, with bold black stitches that poke at my left side. This scar will forever mark me.
But the incisions in The Skin I Live In are neat, precise, and designed to blend in. Antonio Banderas plays Robert Ledgard, a plastic surgeon gone awry; he’s gone to extreme measures to create new and improved human skin and is an expert at facial transplants. He holds a woman captive in his home; played by Elena Anaya, Vera wears a bodysuit while she reads, does yoga, writes on the wall, and attempts to escape. Marilia, the housekeeper (Marisa Paredes), assists Ledgard by keeping Vera locked in and under guard.
Almodóvar’s original inspiration for the film was based on Thierry Jonquet’s novel Tarantula (originally published in French as Mygale). The screenplay was further influenced by Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face and Fritz Lang’s thrillers. Most of the movie takes place in the plastic surgeon’s estate in Toledo, Spain. His spacious home, decorated with huge paintings of nude women, also houses medical facilities, including an operating room and research laboratory. The surgeon is a psychopath bent on revenge, but once I saw what led to his madness, I gave him a break. This is a sort of horror flick, without too much carnage.
In an interview with Rene Rodriguez in the Miami Herald (October 30, 2011), Pedro Almodóvar talks about his restraint in showing gore. “I purposely tried to avoid all the gory trappings of the horror genre and spill as little blood as possible. The worst things in the film all happen off-screen… I wanted to make a genre movie in my own manner to discover it in my own way. I also wanted to make a very austere and sober movie. Because the story is so extreme, I didn't want anything to distract you from the main plot. I realized the less you see, the more powerful it is.”
There is a little blood, though, and it goes a long way. There are single drops of blood observed under a microscope, vials of blood in a centrifuge. There’s a gallon of warm, fresh blood plunked on the breakfast table. Blood that gushes after skin is punctured with a blade. There’s the puddle of blood atop the bedding. And then, there are the blood ties that bind all the players in this film.
I won’t give away the plot. Not because it’s extreme, but because discovering the story is part of the wonder of this movie. With non-linear construction, the story jumps from the present to six years past with flashbacks; it ends in present time. But yes, it is intense. Deep into the movie, I heard a woman in a nearby row exclaim, “This is almost too much for me!”
The Skin I Live In pushes the limits and transgresses, Almodóvar-style. Yet the characters are a bit less campy and hysterical, and more subdued than some of his other films. The plastic surgeon is emotionally disconnected and hard to read, while the woman being held captive is captivating with her soulful eyes. The construction of beauty is at play, particularly the way that the male view informs feminine beauty (in a heterosexual and patriarchal paradigm).
Some of the wonder of this movie is how it haunts me now, how my head is rolling with conversations about gender identity. Here’s a line that lingers: “Your life depends on this orifice.” Maybe Almodóvar didn’t intend for it to be taken too seriously, but by leaving out the gore he let my mind fill in the blanks, and it has gone on overdrive.
Also fresh in my mind is Concha Buika’s stunning performance during a wedding attended by the plastic surgeon and his daughter. Scenes with Buika’s jazzy singing “Se me hizo fácil” and “Por el amor de amar” are interspersed with quick violent images of what was happening out in the garden that night. This is the scene that explains how Vera ended up in Ledgard’s clutches, which I recommend that you see for yourself.