The Films of 2011: The Skin I Live In

One of the most strikingly beautiful images from Pedro Almodovar’s latest, The Skin I Live In, and one that recalls his previous Broken Embraces.  Like that film, which examined the attempt of a film director to reclaim the visual image of his lost beloved, The Skin I Live In is a characteristically rich and unsettling statement about the obsession of a meticulous male artist to re-construct the dead, to un-make the mistakes of the past, and to create and control women.  While one might say that Almodovar is simply covering familiar ground here, I prefer to think of him as returning to the same ideas and images (as most great filmmakers do), rearranging and re-combining them each time, much like his main characters are compulsively, often fatally, drawn again and again to the same sites of passion and desire.  

This is to say that The Skin I Live In marks another success for Almodovar.  Like his other work, it’s lurid, stylish, darkly comic, and thoroughly queer in its representation of love, gender and sexuality.  The plot—which at first seems linear but which turns out to be densely elliptical in the Almodovar style—centers on the attempts of a surgeon named Dr. Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) to make over a captive patient into a new version of his late wife, who committed suicide after being burned in a car accident.  Almodovar presents Ledgard as a kind of postmodern mad scientist who toils away in a state-of-the-art laboratory/compound instead of a Gothic mansion, and whose Frankensteinian monster is a beautiful brunette named Vera instead of an abject specter.  Or is she?  As the film proceeds to give us Vera’s backstory and Almodovar springs a series of perverse surprises on us, we’re meant to question the extent to which gender itself is always a matter of experimentation and modification, of making oneself into a particular kind of body.  In the world of Almodovar, so densely populated by drag queens, transvestites, and actresses, everyone’s body is a “work of art”: something artificially created, never authentic.  Usually, that’s a liberating notion in Almodovar, because it gives his characters the freedom to (re)invent themselves; here, when someone else is wielding the scalpel, it’s a source of horror.  (The film also dares to suggest that to be a beautiful woman is to suffer the unkindest cut of all.)        

The theoretical questions posed by the film are intriguing, but it also works—as do Almodovar’s best films—as a sleek and attractive thriller.  The influence of Hitchcock is present here, mixed with that of medical horror films like Eyes Without a Face.  The art direction, sets, and music here are sensuous and lush, and Banderas (looking a bit like Cary Grant from his North by Northwest period) lends the film a certain dark, rakish sexiness.  That dark sexiness has been present in Almodovar ever since his 1980s films with their violent rapes, murders and suicides, but he’s in firmer control of it now—an artist working at the height of his powers.

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