The Skin I Live In

December, 2011, Drama

Directed by:Pedro Almodóvar


Pedro Almodovar, the enfant-terrible of Spanish cinema, brings his patented capacity for painterly images and recurring themes into this pastiche of genres with mixed results. Blatantly homogenizing horror/sci-fi and classic murder- mystery genres, the director’s 32nd film is far from his best - - but it’s a provocatively beautiful exercise in story-telling nevertheless.

 In a remote, almost hermetically-sealed Spanish villa, highly regarded plastic surgeon Dr. Robert Ledgard, is developing an astounding medical breakthrough - - synthetic skin. But instead of sharing this scientific accomplishment with his professional colleagues Ledgard, (played with attractive understatement by Antonio Banderas) employs it to convert an androgynous-looking young man into a breathtakingly beautiful young woman he names Vera Cruz (Elena Anaya) in order to replace his deceased wife and daughter, lost to especially brutal treatment at the hands of different men. (In typical Almodovar fashion, even the names of characters conveys something - - the name of the doctor’s stunning transformation  - - Vera Cruz - - is an amalgam of the Spanish words “ver a cruz” which translates in English to “see across”. 

Employing a plot loaded with McGuffins, (Hitchcock’s word for consciously inserted plot twists designed to lure the audience off-track) Skin’s first reel is nearly indecipherable. The film compounds this confusion by employing dramatically flamboyant supporting characters that have become a recurring staple in Almodovar’s work. But as the director unfolds the seemingly disconnected elements of his storyline, Dr. Ledgard creates his beautiful Frankenstein only to fall in love with him/her - - setting up a climax which blends murder and reconciliation in equally unpredictable measure.

 Hollywood has never produced a director with the stylistic panache and visual flair Almodovar has displayed in his best work; from early success (Pepi, Lucy, Bom and Other Girls like Mom) through gender-bending boxoffice hits in Europe, (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down) to his more recent and subtler movies, (All About My Mother, Talk To Me) Almodovar has consistently raised intriguing questions about what constitutes appropriate sexual behavior vis a vie gender identity. Almodovar heroes (and more often heroines) are often guilty of outlandish behavior and wince-inducing personal styles, but they’re never at a loss for the type of courage required by those willing to face reality of their lives with bracing honesty.

 As a result, Almodovar’s films are far from what passes as “suitable content” for mainstream U. S. commercial movies, making this gifted Spanish filmmaker the best director whose vibrant, genuinely artistic works you’re most likely never to have seen. With his painterly eye, a capacity to send wordless signals in set design and the willingness to cast remarkable actors in his scripts, Almodovar, at age 62, has become not only a great filmmaker, but also a eloquent spokesperson for the GLBT community. With equal measures of wit and flair, the director’s oeuvre points up the humanity of those forced to the margins of society by their sexual orientation. 

Skin employs one of Hollywood’s oldest clichés – the mad scientist – to raise provocative questions about the real components of gender and the price paid by the physically weak when they’re forced to endure sexual violence. Almodovar’s important message risks being lost in the melodramatic plot employed here - - but if you can stomach the often creepy images he employs, you may leave the theater with a very different set of expectations about the social construct of “sexual identity” and those who exploit it’s meaning.

 The Verdict? A troubling and serious film on a sensitive subject masquerading as a piece of cinematic fluff.



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