Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The Skin I Live In

There’s only one thing worse than a film review which reveals the plot: a poster which advises you that the movie contains a ‘must-keep-secret twist’. The Skin I Live In contains exactly that.

A critic’s job ought to be to offer a brief synopsis of the plot without giving away the key plot developments and to offer a critique of the action they described. When writing about a film like The Skin I Live In that can prove somewhat difficult given the way the narrative develops – it’s a fine line between giving too much away and saying too little. Thus far, the only review I’ve heard of the picture (Boyd and Floyd standing in for Mark Kermode on Five Live) did a pretty good job of this. But their careful avoidance of revealing even the existence of ‘the twist’ was totally undermined when I saw the publicity poster for the film whilst walking into the cinema.

From that point on, my enjoyment was spoiled slightly by my determination to guess what the twist would be. And I did. Very easily and very early indeed. I was actually convinced that there would be a double twist later on – surely it shouldn’t be so easy to see through Almodovar’s clever plot? It was.

That said, The Skin I Live in is still a very watchable and interesting movie. Antonio Banderas plays Robert Ledgard, a skilled and groundbreaking surgeon who’s working on creating a synthetic skin which is impervious to burns and malarial mosquito bites. The subject for his research is Vera (Elena Anaya), a stunningly beautiful woman seemingly held captive within the rooms of his enormous home-cum-laboratory. His unswervingly loyal housekeeper Mariella (Marisa Paredes) is the only other person aware of Vera’s existence.

Robert’s obsession with producing fire-resistant skin is borne out of the loss of his wife. Disfigured in a horrific accident, his surgical skills ultimately proved too little to save her life. His determination to make amends comes at a professional cost as colleagues and superiors urge him to abandon his risky and illegal research.

Little more can be said about the plot (I’m not going to fall into my own trap) without spoiling the action, but parallels can easily be drawn between Frankenstein and The Human Centipede’s Heiter: doctors who have fallen in love with the results of their obsessive experiments.

It’s a film which can be divided very neatly into three parts. Initially Robert’s experiments are stylishly and meticulously portrayed in neatly surgical close-ups of clinical implements and blood samples. There is little explanation: the audience is forced to make sense of the strangely mesmeric scenes before them. Vera is presented as a lycra-clad doll, barely registering emotion. Robert is merely a meticulous and committed scientist.

As the mystery deepens things become rather more prosaic. An extremely conventional middle section deals with the whys and wherefores in a straightforward series of flashbacks: it’s far and away the least interesting part of the film and at times is even slightly clumsy: metaphorical imagery such as Robert bending bonsai trees to his whim and a shop’s scarecrow themed window display is so obvious as to verge on parody. A tiger-suited interloper at least brings some dark-humour to proceedings – at least until the initial levity of his appearance turns sour.

Thankfully the interest of the early segment is restored as the film moves towards its denouement. There’s certainly a tragic air of inevitability about how things turn out, but it’s the journey which really counts here. Almodovar tackles some huge issues: sexuality, identity, obsession and beauty. All of these, of course, have been examined in detail time after time. Rarely, though, have they been explored so flamboyantly and with such visual flair. It’s a beautiful film filled with beautiful characters and exquisitely framed scenes: at its heart, however, it’s much darker.

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