‘The Skin I Live In’: Face reality

October 12, 2011

“Pygmalion” meets “Frankenstein” by way of the imagination of Pedro Almodovar in “The Skin I Live In,” as tensely creepy and compelling a film as the Spanish maestro has yet made. And that’s going some.

Almodovar, reunited with Antonio Banderas, uses the star’s matinee-idol looks to mask the unhinged psyche that guides this character: a grief-stricken plastic surgeon whose quest for vengeance takes him to uncharted territory. Did I say mask? Almodovar’s film is about the faces we show and the faces we hide – and also about how much of our personality we owe to the face we are born with.

Banderas is Dr. Robert Ledgard, first seen doing skin grafts on a woman in a body stocking, Vera (Elena Anaya), who could be his patient (in a lock-down ward of some sort). She’s a vehicle for his transplants, in an effort to create a new kind of skin that will be impervious to fire or other destructive forces.

But his mentor at the science institute where he gives a paper on his discoveries warns him: Mixing human and animal DNA (the doctor incorporates genetic strands from much tougher pigskin to make the humanoid skin more fire-resistant) is against the laws of man and science.

Back at the doctor’s house, Vera and his housekeeper, Marilia (Marisa Paredes), are visited by Marilia’s criminally insane son, Zeca (Robert Alamo) – who arrives dressed up and made up to look like a tiger for Carnival. The feral Zeca finds and rapes Vera – but the good doctor comes home in time to kill and dispatch Zeca.

At which point Almodovar starts playing with time, allowing Marilia to tell her own story to Vera – and to then let Almodovar tell Vera’s story to the audience. It’s the latter that carries the plot forward (or backward, then forward), as we discover who Vera is and how she came to be Ledgard’s patient and prisoner.

Early on, Ledgard mentions the idea of face transplants – now a reality in medical science, though still one fraught with layers of literal and figurative meaning. It ties directly to Almodovar’s title, as well: Who are you if you wake up with a different face? If your mind is your own but your body has been completely reupholstered with skin grafts and cosmetic surgery, who do you become?

That notion of transformation is at the heart of Almodovar’s story, whether it is Ledgard’s shift from being a man of science and medicine to a sci-fi torturer who forces his will – and his work – on his victim, or Marilia’s move from caring mother to accomplice.

Most obviously, it is about Vera, whose reconfigured face and physique are as radical a shift as anyone might undergo. Almodovar has created a character who must recreate herself from scratch – to figure out who and how to be.

The faces in this film are striking – more so when Almodovar throws them up on a massive HD TV screen in the doctor’s den. Ledgard not only watches Vera – he is able to zoom in on her when he wants to. It’s an unsettling effect: the doctor, face to face with a massive image of his creation, which stares into his eyes as though the figure in this transmission were, in fact, confronting him in the flesh.

Banderas brings a tough, restrained quality to the doctor, a man who has allowed his genius to become a kind of madness, informed by talent and intelligence. He never plays him as a madman – which makes the insane things he undertakes seem that much more sinister.

Anaya is equal to him: a woman who must remain a blank canvas, despite the feelings roiling inside of her. Her anger and frustration occasionally erupt – yet Anaya does a beautiful job maintaining a placidity that could be feigned – or might simply be the product of a face immobilized by too much surgery.

“The Skin I’m In” is Almodovar at the height of his powers, with its understated but powerful camera work, its use of massive paintings as décor and its depiction of multiple madness. The Spanish master still knows how to get under an audience’s skin and unsettle it in shivery, satisfying ways.

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