REVIEW: La piel que habito [The Skin I Live In] [2011]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 120 minutes | Release Date: September 2nd, 2011 (Spain)
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Director(s): Pedro Almodóvar
Writer(s): Pedro Almodóvar / Agustín Almodóvar (collaboration) / Thierry Jonquet (novel Tarantula)

“I breathe. I know I breathe”

The largest organ of the human body, skin is our last defense against the outside world. Holding our internal muscles and veins within its vulnerable shell, it is also one of the traits that defines our unique appearance. Trapped by an external façade of varying attractiveness, the way we look to others greatly affects how they see us upon initial introduction. Male and female are generally obvious camps with which to lump us, but our physical attributes can never completely represent who we are on the inside. Gay, straight, bisexual, honest, enraged, smart, damaged, psychopathic, or under the influence of narcotics, what we feel and are capable of can always be masked. The skin we inhabit can be our savior—hiding us beneath a detailed charade of smoke, mirrors, and deflection—but too often it can also be our prison.

This is not a problem for world-renowned plastic surgeon Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), a genius willing to participate in the delicate art of facial transplantation. He paints with skin as burn victims and the deformed are reborn by his hands; given new identities for lives publicly shunned due to physical abnormality. A miracle worker practicing within the confines of his secluded home, patients enjoy a sense of security through his professionalism and confidentiality. But personal pain and anguish takes its toll when his cheating wife is left burning by her lover. Unable to save her from the inevitable psychological pain, she soon plummets to her death from an open window and traumatizes their daughter Norma (Blanca Suárez) into doing the same years later. Ledgard decides then to devote his time to a scientific breakthrough, developing an impermeable skin to theoretically cure the world of cuts, burns, and diseases like malaria.

And with that we have Pedro Almodóvar’s new film, La piel que habito [The Skin I Live In]. Based on the novel Mygale by French author Thierry Jonquet, the subject matter’s horrific elements may appear odd when compared to the auteur’s past works but its melodramatic tone is surely not. Chock full of relationship revelations straight out of a telenovela, the big difference is how nonchalant so many are simply dropped into conversation. We discover Ledgard’s shrouded familial bonds as though they aren’t worth a second glance when they’d be the major twists in any other movie. Because the central mystery isn’t necessarily about him, these startling details become secondary to the questions we conjure up concerning his human guinea pig Vera (Elena Anaya) and his illegal transgenesis experiments on her. Originally believed to be our hero—the savior of the unfortunate and quite possibly mankind—Robert may in fact be the villain.

Shot by Pedro’s frequent collaborator José Luis Alcaine, the film is composed of sequences shot within static frames to mirror the sterile quality of Ledgard’s skin-grafting procedures. We watch his meticulous jigsaw of epidermis placed atop a grid covered mannequin dissolve into the naked flesh of Anaya’s willing body. Like inside an operating theatre, we get a bird’s eye view of his creation’s smooth skin and its ability to withstand a flame’s heat. A mad scientist, Ledgard has discovered a way to prevent the demise of his wife and did so by molding a new woman in her likeness. As his closest confidant Marilia (Marisa Paredes) tells him, though, the resemblance is too similar. With his experimentations complete and the Biology Institute’s president telling him to no longer work with human DNA no matter the healing powers he has uncovered, it appears Vera’s time is up. And she knows it.

So, just as the question arises about what to do with this woman locked up like a captive to science, details of the past begin to come into focus via an extended flashback of Ledgard family horrors. Ushered in by an old acquaintance named Zeca (Roberto Álamo), we become aware of Vera and the long dead Gal’s likeness to each other. Tempers flare as blood is spilled and sexual urge overpowers rational thought. The deliberate compartmentalization of his patient from himself is shattered as memories of past emotions stir up feelings capable of clouding any man’s judgment by transporting him to a forgotten time of happiness. Forever watching Vera’s sensuality zipped within a full-body sleeve conforming her into that of a ghost through television screens, her desire to be his is no longer met with impatience and anger. But once that wall comes down, the stunning truth of the past six years rises to engulf them all.

Without wanting to give too much away, the second half of The Skin I Live In will intrigue as it disgusts. Needing fresh eyes unaware of the revelations hidden beneath its slowly peeled layers, you must open yourself to the possibilities and the horrors subverting everything you have previously seen. Banderas will captivate as his performance never wavers—the changing circumstances of the story surrounding him turn the cold intellect of a genius into the empty vacuum of a man lost after the tragedies befalling the two women he loves. We watch from two perspectives the events pushing him towards manufacturing Vera from the malleable soul who may or may not still exist beneath the surface. A father’s pain at seeing his flesh and blood defiled and the scared confusion of his daughter and her predator combine to give us a completely different understanding of all we have seen.

Heightened into a sense of dramatic gravitas, a disquieting humor underlies the suffering onscreen. Álamo’s role brings a sinister laugh; Paredes and Suárez open to reveal more plot details than expected; and Jan Cornet as Vicente will enter to break your heart. But while Banderas is the puppet master controlling all, it is Anaya’s strength at the center that lingers the most afterwards. A willing volunteer or imprisoned captive, our lack of understanding her motivations will be rewarded by the end—or punished depending on tolerance for the vile and grotesque. Stunningly beautiful and fearlessly showing every curve of her body, she is the hope of a scientific future devoid of pain and sorrow. While most breakthroughs leave a varying amount of collateral damage in its wake, however, the unique quality of her Vera is that she is both the victory and the sacrifice of a fight born from darkness.

[1] Left to Right: Elena Anaya as Vera and Antonio Banderas as Doctor Robert Ledgard. Photo by Lucía Faraig/© El Deseo, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
[2] Left to Right: (back to camera) Antonio Banderas as Doctor Robert Ledgard and Elena Anaya as Vera. Photo by José Haro/© El Deseo, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
[3] Jan Cornet as Vicente. Photo by José Haro/© El Deseo, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

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