The Skin I Live In Review
It’s well known that Pedro Almodóvar is something of a film-buff with a wide knowledge of classic cinema. In 2006, when the filmmaker was invited to host a retrospective of his films for an exhibition of his work at the Cinématèque Français in Paris, he selected his own personal choices of classic films that in some way influenced his own work or could be seen as being complementary to them in their themes. If Almodóvar were to pair any film with his latest feature, The Skin I Live In (La Piel que Habito), it would have to be Georges Franju’s Eyes Without A Face. Almodóvar however is too good a filmmaker to merely imitate or rework the themes and interests of other artists and his own films each have a distinct, strong, personality and style of their own. So although the Spanish director’s latest film seems to be in a genre that is not one we would normally associate with him – the psychological horror movie – and it bears influences of many of the originators and masters of this genre (Feuillade, Lang, Buñuel, Hitchcock), The Skin I Live In is nonetheless unquestionably and completely an Almodóvar film.
An outline description of the film however certainly brings to mind Franju’s Eye’s Without A Face when, after addressing a symposium on the research he has carried out into skin and organ grafting, eminent plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) returns home to work in secret – since he is making use of illegal scientific techniques – on his own pet project at his personal laboratory at home. There, he keeps and voyeuristically spies upon a young woman, Vera (Elena Anaya) held captive there while he methodically and tirelessly works to develops a new skin to transform her appearance. Although his wife died horribly in a car accident, Vera is however clearly much younger than Ledgard and certainly not his disfigured wife who is in need of the skin grafts, nor can she be his daughter who committed suicide years ago – but there is something familiar about the woman he is working on. So who is Vera, and is she being held captive in an isolated room – in luxurious surroundings certainly, but a captive nonetheless – wearing a protective body stocking for her own good, or is there a more sinister side to the doctor’s work? Undoubtedly marked by the tragedies in his life, and clearly not following any sanctioned scientific experiments, what do you think?
If Franju is the seemingly obvious inspiration however for The Skin I Live In (in reality it was developed from a novel ‘Mygale’ by Thierry Jonquet), the strongest impression of an influence we have at the start of the film, with its voyeurism and fetishistic body imagery, is rather one of Spanish cinema’s earliest pioneers and mavericks, Luis Buñuel, by way perhaps of the heightened colour and melodramatic content of Douglas Sirk, with the additional psycho-sexual edge of Fassbinder. And, in many respects, if you were to draw a line through the development of such themes in cinema history, those directors would indeed be interrelated and inevitably culminate in the work of Pedro Almódovar. With The Skin I Live In, the Spanish filmmaker is only fulfilling his role as the successor to those filmmakers, taking their themes and bringing his own sensibility to them and making them completely his own.
The Skin I Live In however is also an extension of Almodóvar’s themes and obsessions that can be found in some of his more extreme and sexually explicit films – you could certainly see something of Átame (Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down) in the premise, but some of the themes relating to gender could even go back to Law of Desire – but while this area of the director’s work is undoubtedly as much influenced by Italian giallo horror films, as it is by classic cinema, the psychosexual nature of the work and the obsessive way in which Dr. Ledgard dedicates himself to his gruesome task – the true twisted nature of which only becomes apparent much later in the film – certainly merits the explicit nature of the disturbing ideas and strong imagery that are shown, but never in a way that feels gratuitous.
The interest that the director has personally in some of the themes that arise here can be determined not only by the fact that The Skin I Live In clearly rises above its influences and becomes entirely an Almodóvar film, but also through the huge amount of detail that the filmmaker invests in his psychological exploration of his characters. At times, the referencing of books by Louise Bourgeois and Vera’s obsessive writing on the walls of her luxurious prison can occasionally feel a little like added footnotes, but such ideas as yoga being adopted by the young woman to retain some sense of inner control of her life and her body, do strike one as being well though-out and considered. This is the kind of detail that other filmmakers working in this genre purely for sensationalism certainly wouldn’t have gone into, and certainly not explored in such psychological depth.
There is however no real need for the viewer to be knowledgeable about the cinema influences or alert enough to pick up all the references and homages that the Almodóvar scatters throughout the film – or more appropriately in the context, uses as a kind of patchwork to give it greater depth and meaning – The Skin I Live In is an intriguing, cold and meticulously paced thriller in its own right, that makes its way inexorably through some shocking developments towards a deliriously twisted finale. Fans of the director’s previous work will be less surprised by the tone and the content of the film, but should be equally impressed to see Almodóvar tie together so much of the best of his themes and his outside influences into a compelling and coherent film that is up there with his best work.