Relationships and Obsession Fit Almodovar Like a Second Skin
Spaniard Pedro Almodovar has 33 films on his IMDB filmography, dating back to 1973, but I hadn't heard of him until I saw Matador at the campus film series. The hip kids in Spanish decided to check out the film with the risque reputation: it had to do with bullfighters who pursued a link between orgasm and the moment of death. Kinky and muy European, it was an artistic film with a horror-movie slant to titillate the college and art-house crowd.
But Almodovar turned out not to be a horror director. After Matador, his films that played in the U.S. looked very different. Women on the Verge of Nervous Breakdown might have had a slight exploitation feel, but nobody would call it a horror film. Later films, including Talk to Her, All about My Mother, and Volver, had to do with parental relationships, sex, emotions, and obsession. I wouldn't go so far as to call them "chick flicks" -- there's usually a dark and transgressive element to them -- but if the High Heels (1991) fit....
Still, obsession isn't very far from horror. A character with an unhappy, unhealthy, unmet need for love only has to cross one Rubicon to become Kathy Bates in Misery or Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct.
In The Skin I Live In, Almodovar's characters have crossed that river (though with cooler heads than Bates and Stone).
Antonio Banderas plays Robert, a renowned plastic surgeon who is passionate about his work. He's been working on a way to create skin using cells from a pig and DNA from the patient. Maybe it's ethically questionable, but Robert won't withhold his help and expertise because of convention. There are burn victims and disfigured patients who can't wait.
Robert even takes his work home with him. The "work" he brings home is a young woman, Vera (Elena Anaya). Vera seems to be a well-kept prisoner, or possibly a very fragile patient. Robert stares at her perfect female form -- no doubt enhanced by his skilled expertise -- through closed-circuit TV cameras. His look is less a leer than paternalistic pride, a marveling at perfection. He checks in on her frequently to ensure she is well.
Her walls are covered in handwritten scrawls and sketches, but she doesn't show any anger or resentment to Robert. Is she a burn victim? A Pygmalion? Perhaps a Frankenstein's monster? We'll soon learn that Robert has lost his daughter; perhaps this is some sort of replacement? All we know is that it's an off-kilter situation, and we have to accept it for now until the director shows us more.
Meanwhile, Robert's housekeeper (Marisa Paredes) allows her son (Roberto Alamo) -- dressed as a tiger for Carnaval and on the run from the cops -- to come into the home. He sees Robert's caged patient and threatens to cause a rift in the strange but stable household.
Halfway through the film, The Skin I Live In jumps back six years to fill in some missing detail. It introduces some new characters and situations -- including Robert's daughter and the boy who loves her. Almodovar then slowly weaves the lines of all the characters back together.
Many films use a bookended flashback without thinking twice -- they could be re-edited chronologically without significantly changing the film. Here, the structure and pacing are an integral part of the storytelling. And that's why I can't say any more. You'll have to take my recommendation and see the rest for yourself.
The Skin I Live In is a classy, mature horror film. That's no surprise, if you consider Almodovar's long career in character-based dramas peopled with mothers, daughters, and jealous lovers. All of the characters in The Skin I Live In are written and acted with great attention to detail. Every thought and action feels justified.
Somber, serious music adds weight to the proceedings. The story is layered with repeating themes of identity -- Robert is a plastic surgeon, after all -- and of being defined by one's history -- thus the importance of the flashback. There are ideas about the balance of power between men and women, and a smart recognition of the weapons used in the battle of the sexes: paternalism, coercion, and obsession.
You'd find many of these same qualities in Almodovar's films about relationships. But in The Skin I Live In, they don't exist for their own sake; they serve another layer of story, which makes them more interesting to us fans of spec fic.
For Almodovar, decades of experience making "chick flicks" has made his newest horror film great.