Last night, I saw the new film by Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar, La Piel Que Habito (The Skin I Live In). I went with the lovely Joanna, who will be doing her own post on the film soon. We took an Almodóvar class together in college, and we have different preferences regarding his work, so it should be an interesting discussion. I am a big fan of Almodóvar in his woman-oriented vein, exemplified by films like All About My Mother (1999) and Volver (2006). Most of his more sadistic, male-oriented films, however, either leave me cold or make me angry.
The Skin I Live In falls into the latter category. It tells the story of a plastic surgeon, Robert (Antonio Banderas), who lives in a big, beautiful house in Toledo and does research in his basement. He also keeps a mysterious, beautiful woman locked in an upstairs room. Vera (Elena Anaya) does yoga and reads while wearing a supportive body sock, and Robert watches her on an enormous screen in his room (which is next door, incidentally). As the film goes on, we learn more about Robert’s past and where Vera comes from, along with lots of blood and rape.
The first problem with the film is its pacing. Especially during the flashback section, some of the sequences are unnecessarily long and feel disjointed from each other. In the end, it all sort of comes together, but there are definitely some slow moments along the way. While the mystery setup is good, and the twist works well, the film ends very abruptly, with little to no resolution or catharsis. It feels as though Almodóvar just got tired of the story and didn’t know how to wrap it up, leaving the viewer unsettled, but mostly annoyed.
One of the best things about Almodóvar’s work in general is that there’s always a great deal to discuss. The Skin I Live In is rife with interesting topics and ideas, and Almodóvar does a wonderful job of conveying these subjects visually. The image of Robert’s basement operating room – clean, sterile glass surrounded by crumbling brick walls – conjures up ideas of old versus new, organic versus artificial, and natural versus man-made. Robert’s newest invention is a type of artificial skin that can be used to heal burn victims, and the notion of getting an entirely new skin is an important one in the film. What is the relationship between our appearance and our identity? Where does the self really live? What makes a person ‘real’? All these ideas, as well as issues of gender and voyeurism (old Almodóvar favorites), are at play in the film, making it quite thought-provoking despite its mess of a plot.
Probably the most irritating thing about this film was its excessive use of rape. Almodóvar has previously portrayed rape in many of his films, and he has been criticized for many of them. The most notable example is Kika (1993), in which a woman is raped for around fifteen minutes while talking to women who walk by, picking up the phone, etc. The point of the scene is to make rape funny, and Almodóvar does this frequently. The Skin I Live In contains two lengthy rape scenes, as well as a gratuitous scene of a napkin being shoved deep inside a woman’s mouth, which is clearly meant to evoke rape. I understand why Almodóvar portrays rape so much, and why he attempts to make it a laughing matter – he’s trying to rob it of its power. If women can laugh at rape and not be particularly bothered by it, the act loses some of its destructive effect. I understand it, but I still find it offensive and upsetting every time I see it. No matter how many Almodóvar films I see, I doubt I will ever be okay with this tactic of his, and it is the primary reason I am not a fan of this newest film.
That said, the cast is fantastic. Antonio Banderas has always done his best work, albeit usually as a psycho-stalker, in Almodóvar films, and it’s wonderful to see him return to form here. Elena Anaya, who recalls a combination of Natalie Portman and Penelope Cruz, is both fragile and furious as the beautiful captive. Almodóvar’s camera loves her, caressing her every feature (sometimes in a fetishistic manner), and draws us into Robert’s obsession as we marvel at her beauty. Finally, it was lovely to see Marisa Paredes, an old Almodóvar favorite, as Robert’s fiercely loyal housekeeper.
There is much more I could say about this film – like Hitchcock, Almodóvar is nothing if not thought-provoking, but I will leave off for the time being. I look forward to Joanna‘s thoughts, and hopefully we can get some discussion going.