Rewind Review: 2011’s ‘The Skin I Live In’

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The Skin I Live In is a psychological/body Horror from Spanish writer/director Pedro Almodóvar, based on the novel Tarantula by Thierry Jonquet.  Starring Antonio Banderas, it’s an incredibly original and complex narrative that delves into a bevy of themes relating to love, obsession, and revenge.

Check out my review after the jump.

Official Synopsis:  In honor of his late wife who died in a flaming car accident, scientist, Dr. Robert Ledgard (Banderas), is trying to synthesize the perfect skin which can withstand burns, cuts or any other kind of damage. As he gets closer to perfecting this skin on his flawless patient, the scientific community starts growing skeptical and his past is revealed that shows how his patient is closely linked to tragic events he would like to forget.

Allow me to expand on this synopsis just a bit.  Dr. Ledgard is obsessed with his quest to create “the perfect skin”.  While his experiments are yielding amazing results, the Dr. is taken to task by a colleague for disregarding important ethical safeguards–namely: Experimenting on humans (or rather, one human in particular): A beautiful woman named Vera (Elena Anaya) who he keeps locked in a spacious corner of his palatial estate.  While his housekeeper Marillia (Marisa Paredes) attends to her needs, the Dr. spends lonely hour toiling away in his underground laboratory.  Just as Victor Frankenstein who was inspired by the cruel loss of his greatest love, Dr. Ledgard is waging a heated vendetta against death itself.  And just like Mary Shelley’s tragic protagonist, Dr. Ledgard pushes himself to the brink of insanity.  In this respect, he resembles another recent incarnation of Gothic Literature’s most famous mad scientist: Dr. Heiter from The Human Centipede (this is a horror movie, remember).

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Act 1 is the most difficult part of the film to endure for a few reasons, namely: It’s hard to tell what the fuck is going on.  We don’t know it yet, but there are key elements of the story that took place 12 and 6 years ago.  Without a frame of reference, The Skin I Live In presents a difficult scenario to wrap a mind around.  There’s the good Dr.: Driven and devoted to his science with a confident intelligence that almost borders on arrogance.  He seems like a upstanding member of society.  So what’s up with the hottie locked away upstairs?  From what little we know about Dr. Ledgard, kidnaping and enslavement certainly seems out of character for him.  And Vera doesn’t seem your typical prisoner: She’s glowing and radiant (even when covered neck to toes in a flesh colored body suit); she watches television and makes small sculptures out of scraps of cloth–and every night, she and the Dr. meet up to smoke a spot of opium.  While we grapple to understand the nuances of this unusual coupling, we also struggle to understand Marillia’s connection; why is she so distrustful of Vera?  Then things just get chaotic with the introduction of a violent intruder and a shocking assault.  Murder and copious revelations ensue.

Act 2 gives us 90% of the relevant back-story, but the 10% missing is still enough to keep us scratching our heads.  Dr. Ledgard is painted as a sympathetic antihero; first a cuckold, then a widower, and finally a Father burying his only daughter after a gut-wrenching suicide.  It’s the perfect set-up for a change in both tone and direction; it’s at this point that The Skin I Live In becomes a revenge fantasy, not unlike Last House on the Left.  Dr. Ledgard takes action against the man he deems responsibly for his life’s tragic derailments: A young mannequin-maker/party-boy named Vicente (Jan Cornet).  First chained like an animal in the Dr.’s darkest cellar, Vicente is eventually strapped to an operating table where he begins enduring a long and painful series of mutilations.

Everything is illuminated by the beginning of Act 3, but it’s such a shocking reveal that my mouth wouldn’t close for the remainder of the film.  Unexpected?  Yes.  Shocking: Absolutely.  Disturbing? In the extreme.  Yet even with full disclosure, The Skin I Live In remains compelling as ever, deeply nuanced and impactful.   In an unbelievable subversion of expectations, the line between victim and perpetrator fades into oblivion.  Our empathy for Dr. Ledgard evaporates as sympathy swells for despicable Vicente.  In the end, no one comes out of this saga looking good.  Seemingly innocuous coincidences take on incredible subtext, for example: The fact that Vera makes abstract art, Vicente sculpts crude female mannequins, and Dr. Ledgard makes: People.  Each character has creator potential, an unlikely similarity that emphasizes their sameness.

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Related to themes of art, science, and creation, I’m reminded of the myth of Pygmalion: An ancient Greek Sculptor.  Legend has it, Pygmalion becomes so obsessed with a female sculpture he was creating, he actually fell in love with her.  The Gods rewarded Pygmalion by bringing his stone creation to life.  Her name was Galatea.  How perfect then is it that Dr. Ledgard’s late wife was named “Gal”.  Clearly Almodóvar intended for the Pygmalion myth to give us insight to the complex relationship between Dr. Ledgard and his “creation” Vera: The woman with the most perfect skin on the planet (and who happens to be imprinted with Gal’s face).

While The Skin I Live In is shocking on many levels, it is perhaps most problematic in its explorations of control and rape.  The exact number of rapes in the film is debatable (at least one, at most 3).  After you’ve seen the film for yourself, check out the message board on IMDB to see just how divisive this issue really is–and how polar the perspectives.  Either way, whether or not certain characters “think” they committed sexual assault becomes less important than whether Justice has been served–or vastly overstepped.  The Skin I Live In poses difficult questions with no easy answers.    Amazingly, and vexingly, Almodóvar presents characters that we can hate and sympathize for simultaneously .  I feel somewhat guilty about my own conflicting emotions.  And if this isn’t enough subtext for you to gnaw on, the film also hits on themes of abandonment, family ties, and gender identity.  As a blogger, I’m committed to revealing as few spoilers as possible, but I’d love to sit around and discuss this flick in detail with others who have seen it.  Great fodder for students/instructors of Film Theory.

The Skin I Live In is a unique entry into Horror Canon: The plot is shocking, but the film is almost gore free–especially noteworthy considering the Dr.’s specialty: Reconstructive Surgery.  Even the violence is mostly only implied, very rare for an entry in the Revenge subgenre.  And while the film is thematically as macabre and grotesque as any body horror, the cinematography is bright, colorful, and extremely neat (almost sterile).  Even if you consider yourself sensitive when it comes to Horror movies let me assure you: You’ll see more gore in a Harry Potter film.  This doesn’t mean The Skin I Live In is an easy film to absorb (there’s some dark, sinister shit going on here); this film requires a certain level of commitment.

The Skin I Live In is as gruesome as a Hammer Gothic yet as lyrical as a tragic ode: Beautifully shot, brilliantly acted, and very well executed.  Fans of Foreign Horror especially should have this one in their collections.

3.5 out of 5 Skull Heads.

Trailer: HERE

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Directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Produced by Agustín Almodóvar
Pedro Almodóvar
Screenplay by Pedro Almodóvar
Based on Tarantula
by Thierry Jonquet
Starring Antonio Banderas
Elena Anaya
Marisa Paredes
Jan Cornet
Roberto Álamo
Music by Alberto Iglesias
Cinematography José Luis Alcaine
Editing by José Salcedo
Studio El Deseo S.A.
Distributed by Warners España
Release dates
  • 19 May 2011 (2011-05-19) (Cannes)
  • 2 September 2011 (2011-09-02) (Spain)

 

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About Saucy Josh

I write a blog for intelligent Horror movie aficionados called Blood and Guts for Grown Ups: https://bloodandgutsforgrownups.wordpress.com/ View all posts by Saucy Josh

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