Friday, November 4, 2011


In Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito), Antonio Banderas plays Dr. Ledgard, a brilliant reconstructive surgeon whose wife died after being burned in a car accident. Ledgard is developing an artificial skin, resistant to burns & insect bites. In his beautiful Toledo home, he has his own laboratory & operating room. He also has a prisoner.

Held in a comfortable upstairs suite, doing yoga in a bodysuit the color & texture of an ace bandage & receiving her meals & supplies via dumbwaiter, is Vera (Elena Anaya), a beautiful young woman. She’s the doc’s unwilling long-term patient & guinea pig, from whence isn’t clear at first. But she seems, under the bodysuit, to be wearing the Doc’s synthetic skin—exquisitely.

Horror-movie geeks like me will recognize in the synopsis above a tissue of motifs from innumerable earlier European shockers dealing with the attempt to restore old or damaged skin, & make the restoration permanent, ranging from The Awful Dr. Orloff (1962) to Atom Age Vampire (1963) to Countess Dracula (1971) to the hilarious Corruption (1968), but above all to Georges Franju’s unforgettable French classic Les Yeux Sans Visage (Eyes Without a Face, 1960). Almodovar himself has called it a horror movie, though without overt shocks.

While this description is accurate enough, I hope it doesn’t ghettoize The Skin I Live In for those with a distaste for the genre. The director plays this potent, violent, sexually graphic melodrama straight, or at least with no more than the tip of his tongue in cheek. Banderas, in what can only be described as a mad scientist role, underplays superbly & makes the Doc convincing; it’s a commanding star turn, maybe the best of his career. The stunning Anaya makes the mysterious Vera’s plight touching, & Marisa Paredes makes Ledgard’s faithful servant—a role reminiscent of Alida Valli’s in Eyes Without a Face—unnerving without camp.

I’ve always enjoyed & admired Almodovar for his wit, his imagination, & his eye on glorious women. But his movies have often seemed to me to suffer from a streak of whimsy for whimsy’s sake that limits their impact. Volver, his spellbinding non-supernatural ghost story of 2006, was an impressive step away from this, & so is Skin—I think it may be my favorite of the many Almodovar films I’ve seen over the years.

For about the first half of the movie, though I was carried along by scene after tense scene—& also by the excellent score by Alberto Iglesias, driving & suspenseful but never clichéd—part of me also feared that Almodovar was slumming, using the horror trappings as a gimmick. But again & again, what looks like a self-consciously colorful Almodovar flourish—a man showing up at the door in a tiger costume, for instance—turns out to make perfect sense in the story.

Eventually you realize that the script, which Almodovar & his brother Augustin loosely adapted from a French novel by Thierry Jonquet, is going to pull all its strange flashbacks & subplots together into a coherent & jolting whole. It’s one of the best movies of the year.

RIPs: To producer/director Gilbert Cates, noted for his many Oscar shows, departed at 77, & also to actor Leonard Stone, 87, veteran of films like Soylent Green & Mame & plentiful TV, but most remembered as Sam Beauregard in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

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