Pedro Almodóvar’s work had never really caught my attention until viewing the trailer for his latest feature, La piel que habito or The Skin I Live In. I was struck by the sheer bizarreness of the whole thing from Alberto Iglesias’s haunting electronic score to a bald man in a tiger suit licking a security monitor. Not to mention the fact Antonio Banderas was actually in a current film and NOT voicing a feisty Spanish feline. After that first watch of the trailer, I was confused, intrigued and speechless as well as being completely sold for the film.
The Skin I Live In follows Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) one of Spain’s premier plastic surgeons, whom after the death of his wife, has been obsessed with creating a synthetic skin which could have saved her. Twelve years on and yet another tragedy leads Robert to seek a human guinea pig to test his scientific discovery on.
Almodóvar’s film immediately strikes parallels with 1960 French film, Eyes Without A Face (Les yeux sans visage), the story of a surgeon who kidnaps young women and attempts to transplant their faces to his daughter, who was disfigured in a car accident. Both films are immensely well crafted and almost Hitchcockian puzzles. The narrative of The Skin I Live In is a masterfully scripted enigma that almost compels the viewer to solve it – Almodóvar tells the story through a series of layered flashbacks which slowly unravels the mystery and builds up to some spectacular twists.
The Skin I Live In takes several clichéd, tired themes of the horror genre and breathes new life into them. Another clear comparison would be that of Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein, also a fixated genius pushing forward scientific discovery. Almodóvar questions sexual identity, childhood innocence, revenge and complex obsession; doing so in a hugely inventive and haunting way. These themes are also incredibly prominent in the ‘torture porn’ subgenre and to a crass extent, The Skin I Live In does share some parallels with that subgenre (with some distant similarities to the earlier Saw films). In any case, this is ‘torture porn’ made with undeniably skill and beauty.
Visually, the film is no less than breathtaking. Antxón Gómez’s production design is astounding, managing to make even cold clinical operating theatre look visually extravagant. He also captures the sheer beauty of the Spanish countryside, surrounding Ledgard’s estate. The colours are rich and vibrant and mere words cannot express this film’s beauty. Credit is also due to José Luis Alcaine’s sublime cinematography which gives The Skin I Live In a haunting, dreamlike quality. As mentioned above Alberto Iglesias’ score is truly perfect, this pulsing electronic score manages to channel the underlying horror throughout the ever frequent beauty and physical perfection the film displays.
Antonio Banderas, in my opinion, boasts the finest performance of his career in this particular intense turn. Whilst the character carries out the actions of his obsession, which can be difficult to watch, Banderas brings something tragic and endearing to the character through the films romantic subplot. We can understand the reasons behind his actions and get a sense of the pain and struggle Ledgard is facing – this is not simply someone who is ‘twisted’ or ‘evil’. There’s also a stellar supporting turn from Elena Anaya as Ledgard’s guinea pig – Anaya brings a sense of intrigue to the role convincing in her displays of both emotional and physical entrapment.
Whilst, the film may emotionally connect with some viewers, it’s hard to deny how well made The Skin I Live In is. It’s well constructed narrative and puzzle-like structure combined with Almodóvar’s precise direction and perfect cinematography and production design, make the film stand out as a wonderful addition to the horror genre.
Reviewer: Andrew McArthur
DVD/BR Release: 26th December (UK&Ireland)
Rated: 15 (UK)
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Stars: Antonio Banderas, Elena Ayana and Jan Cornet