Thursday, November 3, 2011

Almodóvar’s World: There’s More than One Way to Skin a Spaniard

What’s the Spanish word for chutzpah? Whatever it is, Pedro Almodóvar’s got it, in spades. The Spanish filmmaker’s latest, The Skin I Live In, was released in Los Angeles just in time for Halloween. Though there’s nothing supernatural about this film, its dark tone and macabre humor make it perfect for the time of the year when we expect things to go bump in the night.

The Skin I Live In fits nicely into that long list of films about mad scientists who dare to do the unthinkable. Starring Antonio Banderas as a brilliant surgeon with his own ideas about synthetic skin, it could not fail to remind me of other movies in which a doctor overreaches, using his medical talents for less than noble ends. David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers – with Jeremy Irons playing twin gynecologists -- immediately comes to mind. (So does The Collector, and one of the lesser plot strands of The Silence of the Lambs.) But whereas I remember Dead Ringers as an ice-cold movie, The Skin I Live In has moments of great passion, even love. The twisted adoration that Banderas’ character feels for his wife and daughter helps set the stage for all the destruction to come. As I watched his mind unravel, I couldn’t help thinking of Edgar Allan Poe’s macabre stories, and of course the films of Poe’s most famous cinematic interpreter, Roger Corman.

If you were to cross the hypersensitive, long-suffering protagonist (usually played by Vincent Price) of Corman films like The Tomb of Ligeia with the obsessive scientist of Corman’s X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, you’d have something like the role played by Banderas in The Skin I Live In. But there are some key differences too. Back in the early Sixties, when Corman was directing his Poe cycle, a filmmaker couldn’t delve too deeply into sexuality and gender politics. In any case, Corman himself has long tended to be slightly queasy when it comes to exploring sex and skin. (The films of his protégés at Concorde-New Horizons have always shown plenty of both, but their erotic scenes are never allowed to stray far from the purely conventional.) Almodóvar, on the other hand, loves to undercut traditional notions of male and female body language. It’s probably oversimplifying to say that his own position outside the sexual mainstream encourages him to flirt with the notion that gender identity is fluid. In any case, though, he comes at sexuality from an idiosyncratic perspective that allows anything and everything to be possible.

I won’t say more, because it’s exciting to see a movie that from moment to moment is able to take you by surprise. Be forewarned, though, that Almodóvar pulls no punches. The Skin I Live In is not a gross-out movie of the horror-porn variety beloved by some teenage boys. It is, though, lurid in an adult way: its blood is truly bloody; its sex is (at times) truly painful; its skin is truly bare. And its painful depiction of social and sexual isolation will haunt me for a long time to come.


  1. I haven't seen this, but it sounds great. The plot and that photo reminds me of Franju's EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1960).

    Also, that's the first I've seen of a Corman/Price/Poe comic! Nice find, that one.

  2. Brian, I hope you do get to see this film. I'd love your reaction. I assure you that once you've seen it, it's not easily forgotten.

  3. No doubt, Beverly, and the fact you recommend it so highly has raised my curiosity! I don't have Netflix yet, but will see if the local video store carries it!

  4. I am intrigued by this - as I like Banderas - and anything involving skin is automatically creepy. I'll come back with another comment after I see it!