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The Skin I Live In

Pedro Almodóvar’s latest isn’t as good as it looks

Photo: Antonio Banderas makes over Elena Anaya., License: N/A, Created: 2010:10:18 18:06:14

Antonio Banderas makes over Elena Anaya.

The Skin I Live In

Directed by Pedro Almodóvar

Opens Nov. 4 at the Charles Theatre

Another Almodóvar film, another Almodóvar heroine—in this case Vera (Elena Anaya), seemingly a pampered doña ensconced in an upper-class Zen cell of a bedroom and endowed with the luxury to spend her mornings doing yoga, staving off lines with creams and meds, and working on her art, which involves cutting up her own clothes. Almodóvar heroine she may be, but Vera and her situation are not what they appear to be in all kinds of ways. And that goes for the movie too. What Vera is, in one sense, is Madeleine Elster, and The Skin I Live In is Pedro Almodóvar’s Vertigo—a grand and discomfiting portrait of obsession and doomed love. It is a lot of other things too—as good as Vertigo, or even his own best work, not among them.

Which is not to say that The Skin I Live In doesn’t offer ample evidence of his mastery. It’s easy to assume at first that Vera is married to Robert (Antonio Banderas, reuniting with Almodóvar after more than 20 years and aging like a Spanish Cary Grant). They do share a house together, and although he sleeps separately and watches over her via a bigger-than-life-sized flat-screen monitor on the wall between their bedrooms, married couples are weird sometimes. But, you learn, Robert’s wife died in a car crash years ago. And you learn that he is an eminent plastic surgeon who has been working on growing synthetic human skin. You learn that Vera is a patient of Robert’s, that she is not allowed to leave her bedroom, and that she looks more than a little like Robert’s late wife. Bit by bit you learn, though you also learn there’s more to know.

Almodóvar’s trademark soap-opera subplots make themselves known as well in the person of Robert’s faithful housekeeper/aide/mother figure Marila (Almodóvar veteran Marisa Paredes) and her thuggish horndog son Zeca (Roberto Álamo), who shows up at Robert’s door dressed for Carnival in a shimmery big cat costume, complete with a bobbing tail and a tiger’s head emblazoned across his bulging crotch. The subplot quickly comes to a head, which leads to Marila filling in Vera (and you) about what happened to Robert’s wife, and to Robert’s daughter, which leads to a flashback about said daughter, teenager Norma (Blanca Suárez), and her encounter with a young man named Vicente (Jan Cornet). And at this point you’re wondering where the hell Almodóvar is going with all this.

He is going in a most surprising direction, though one not out of step with his past themes/obsessions. As for where he ultimately ends up, you don’t see it coming, and that’s in part because it doesn’t exactly make sense. Vertigo’s Scottie Ferguson may have been unable to let the past go, to escape the grip of obsession, but his dupe status and basic decency (or maybe just Jimmy Stewart’s) made for a tragic love story. Banderas’ Robert is a psychopath, a literal mad scientist, and while his madness fuels the plot, it also makes The Skin I Live In a de facto horror movie—Almodóvar’s Eyes Without a Face as well—among a lot of other things. And it doesn’t function particularly well as one, or as any of the other things it is either.

The Skin I Live In comes to feels stitched together at odd angles from solid if not necessarily complementary parts, like an especially stylish Frankenstein’s monster. Early scenes that focus (quite extensively) on Robert’s work on perfect fake human skin ultimately feel overdeveloped for how little they matter other than providing a convenient premise. You can’t tweak filmmakers for the films they don’t make, but realizing that Almodóvar’s all done with that part of the story makes you long for the rest of his take on the lengths to which people will go for beauty. Zeca delivers a major defibrillation to the tone when he sleazes into the story, but once he’s out of the picture you start to wonder why he needed to be there in the first place. Even grief and madness don’t quite explain Robert’s contradictory actions at various points, much less why his particular parentage needed to be revealed, other than for melodramatic filigree. And for all the horrible things that happen, Almodóvar stops short of actual recoil at anything, which leaves the film, for all its heavy revelations and brooding moments, feeling far too light.

The surfaces of Almodóvar’s onscreen world retain their captivating luster, from Vera’s flawless epidermis to a wall of her room marked floor to ceiling with drawings and writings—done in makeup pencil, of course. The Skin I Live In is likely the only movie you’ll see this year in which you nod approvingly at a china pattern or chuckle quietly when a cold and grimy hostage gets a shave with grass-clipping-green boutique shaving cream. But beneath the luxe and sensuous shell lies kind of a mess, and one that doesn’t go very deep either.

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