Monday, 29 August 2011

La piel que habito / The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodóvar, 2011)

Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Screenplay: Pedro Almodóvar and Agustín Almodóvar, based on the novel Mygale (a.k.a. Tarantula) by Thierry Jonquet.
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes, Jan Cornet, Blanca Suárez, Roberto Álamo, Eduard Fernández, Susi Sánchez, Bárbara Lennie, Fernando Cayo, José Luis Gómez.

Short version: A rich and macabre body-horror with touches of melodrama, well executed, with excellent performances, but not my cup of tea.




This probably doesn’t qualify as a review, but more a record of my initial thoughts about The Skin I Live In. I started writing on Friday night after seeing the film and I’m very aware that I’ve added something different each day after that, and that my thoughts are not particularly coherent or complete –to me it seems a bit premature to write about it, or at least premature to actually post about it (my misgivings feature below), but I didn’t want Almodóvar Month to end without including something about his newest release (which was, after all, the impetus behind Almodóvar Month in the first place).

     Well, the confusion over the synopsis prior to its first screenings (highlighted in an earlier post) becomes clear, as the two distinct plot outlines turn out not to be a case of either / or but rather both together. The emphasis on the 'creation of a new skin' plot in the run up to the film's release has managed to hide the big revelation / twist pretty effectively in the press coverage; I consider it no small achievement that I managed to see the film on its release day without knowing what the twist would be (despite knowing about that plot strand from the original synopsis), although I did more or less have a complete press blackout (I have a small pile of magazines and articles that can now be read).
     My first reaction was / is that I didn't 'like' it. But I need to see it again before I'll manage to have a coherent opinion about it -I think that Peter Bradshaw is probably right in his review that a second viewing 'frees the viewer from the task of untangling the ridiculous plot, and allows you to savour the extraordinary texture of this film'. I don't think that a film has to be likeable to be worth seeing, or to be interesting; my brain has been buzzing since I saw it (given the coldness of the film, it is perhaps appropriate that it has engaged me intellectually rather than emotionally). Certainly, just in the time while I've been writing this piece, I've picked up on certain elements and issues that require further thought -it is a film that will justify attempts to delve deeper into it, and I want (and need) to see it again before I do that properly. I disagree with Carlos Boyero's (Spanish film critic who has a history of having 'issues' with Almodóvar and his films) rubbishing of the film after he saw it in Cannes when he suggested that it was unintentionally funny -there is a certain warped humour within the film but, in the screening I was in, the only time when there was laughter at an unexpected juncture (at Ledgard's (Antonio Banderas) response when Vicente (Jan Cornet) asks what Ledgard has done to him) I actually took it to be a nervous reaction from a couple of the males in the audience (I had women sitting in front and behind me -no laughter from them at that line).
     So, what was / is my problem with the film? I felt it to be cold and clinical (I know that is at least partly deliberate given Banderas's character and the surgical theme, but it made for a curiously detached atmosphere for me), strangely (for an Almodóvar film) lacking an emotional punch, and I was irritated that yet again rape was used as the trauma inflicted upon female characters in an Almodóvar film. The main thing was the clinical-like distance or detachment between (this) viewer and the characters, which is at least in part created by Ledgard's usually unemotional behaviour (Banderas is impressively buttoned-down) and the generally sterile nature of the house (there are a lot of objects, but ironically (given the title) most of it doesn't look particularly 'lived-in'). I guess I didn't manage to suspend disbelief. The film is played straight-faced and with restraint, asking to be taken seriously, but if you actually look at the plot (or try saying it aloud) it stretches credulity. I was also distracted by small and possibly insignificant things, which is a sign that I wasn't committed to the plot -for example, why do Marilia (Marisa Paredes) and Zeca (Roberto Álamo) speak Spanish with a Portuguese accent? I guessed from the brief flashback of Zeca's childhood (which occurs after he has exited the film) that they were from Brazil, but that would mean that Ledgard was as well, no? He doesn't have a Portuguese accent (at least not that I picked up on), and they are all now in Spain -despite the divergent paths their lives took from childhood. It turns out that I wasn't imagining the accents because in Almodóvar's recent El País interview it is revealed that Brazil was chosen as a country of origin for the three because it doesn't have a Judaeo-Christian tradition -but the significance of that isn't elaborated on (I would suppose that it's meant to be linked to Ledgard's lack of scruples about playing God) and it isn't clear within the film. That was one (minor) quibble (there were a couple of others), and as already stated, if I was being distracted by such small things, then I wasn't really engaged by the film. My being distracted by the accents isn't unconnected to the fact that it was during the Zeca segment that I became disengaged from the film (and was consciously aware of doing so) in general -from the moment he entered the house, the brutal attack on Vera (Elena Anaya) seemed inevitable (the sequence has echoes of Kika, with Rossy de Palma's housekeeper letting her escaped-rapist brother into the house and then being unable to protect her mistress (Kika -Verónica Forqué)), and that depressed and annoyed me in equal measure.
      If I put minor irritations to one side, what are the positives? Almodóvar has yet to make a film that cannot withstand multiple viewings and I'm sure that this is no different. I haven't gotten into a blogging approach to films yet, I've still got an academic mindset of feeling that I need to watch something several times and then let it percolate through my brain, read around it, watch it again, and then write and rewrite -watching, writing and posting something in the space of a few days actually makes me feel a little unsettled (not least because I keep thinking of other details / interpretations). The next time I watch The Skin I Live In, I will no doubt pick up on lots of little touches that I'll appreciate just as much as the afore-mentioned ones irritated me (a couple that I've already noticed: all of Ledgard's 'hobbies' seem to involve his meddling in nature, as witnessed by his growing (and shaping / manipulating) bonsai trees; and the name of his house is El Cigarral / The Cicada, an insect that sheds its skin). For instance, I'm sure that a lot could be said about art and sculpture within the film, and the nourishing qualities of interacting with art, but I'd need to know more about Louise Bourgeois before I start talking about that (a quick glance at her obituary in The Art Newspaper reveals that there are repetitive themes within her work that obviously connect with Vera's character arc, and go some way to explaining why she seeks solace in the work of this specific artist). Likewise the connections to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, as well as the specific choice of books that Vera is shown reading (Alice Munro and Cormac McCarthy, and apparently she's reading Janet Frame's An Angel at My Table in the scene where she subtly starts to tilt the balance of power by asking Ledgard 'Do you like what you see?' (Delgado 2011: 22)) also need to be considered -what is their significance? How do they relate to the themes of the film? These objects don't appear by mere happenstance; there will be a reason behind them and they add to the rich fabric of the onscreen world Almodóvar has created.
      As with most of Almodóvar's films, references to other films abound -most obviously Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958) and Les yeux sans visage / The Eyes Without a Face (Franju, 1960), and I'm sure many others that went over my head (my frame of reference for horror films is quite limited). But as Paul Julian Smith points out, references to Almodóvar's own works are also woven into the film (2011: 24) - in this instance the ones that seemed most apparent to me as I was watching it were Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (kidnapping and Stockholm syndrome), Kika (voyeurism and the rape), and Labyrinth of Passion (facial surgery and an exchange of identities), but Smith highlights connections to several others as well. Another more general theme that cuts through Almodóvar's work, and recurs here, is the fabrication of the female body via surgery. Almodóvar's self-referencing has been particularly noticeable from Bad Education (which is a compendium of visual references and echoes of the director's earlier films) onwards -for example, the plot of Volver is the plot of one of the Amanda Gris novels in The Flower of My Secret, and the film-within-the-film in Broken Embraces, Chicas y maletas (Girls and Suitcases), owes an obvious debt to Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. The Skin I Live In's complicated narrative structure is another of the elements that recalls earlier Almodóvar films (specifically Talk to Her, Bad Education, and Broken Embraces) through its use of flashbacks to drive the plot forward. In this film the major twist is foreshadowed via the flashback structure; we see a sequence of events (at a party) twice, from two different perspectives. The first flashback belongs to Ledgard, but the second belongs to someone else and holds the key to Vera's identity.
     So, in summary: although not to my taste, the film has much to recommend it and it is well worth the price of a cinema ticket (although you shouldn't be reading this if you haven't already seen it!). I will write about it again in the future (maybe concentrating on the performances, which I haven't discussed here despite them being one of the strengths of the film), when I've had the chance to watch it again and let it percolate in my brain a little longer. It is definitely a film that lingers in your mind long after the lights come up.

Bradshaw, P. (2011) -'Review: The Skin I Live In', The Guardian, 26th August. 
Delgado, M. (2011) -'Flesh and the Devil', Sight & Sound, September, 21:9, pp.18-22.
Harguindey, Á. (2011) -'El abismo Almodóvar', El País Semanal, 21st August. 
Smith, P.J. (2011) -'Marks of Identification', Sight & Sound, September, 21:9, pp.23-24.