Review: The Skin I Live In (2011)
The mythology of Pedro Almodóvar’s films is vast and rich. It encompasses numerous characters: From the nymphomaniac, Sexilia (Cecilia Roth), in Labyrinth of Passions (1982) to the transgender prostitute, Agrado (Antonia San Juan), in All About My Mother (1999); It encompasses numerous stories: From the search of the elusive Ivan (Fernando Guillién) in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) to the return of the ghost of a “deceased” mother (Carmen Maura) in Volver (2006); And it encompasses numerous places, from liberal Barcelona to maternal La Mancha. In recent years, this mythology has become somber, losing the energy and playfulness that was once characterized as “the world of Almodóvar.” Fortunately, the release of The Skin I Live in (2011) brings him back to his former glory. Though the characters and story are much darker than one would expect from Almodóvar, the tone of the film, and especially the narrative, are elements that could only evolve from the Spanish auteur’s brilliant mind.
Set in Toledo in 2012, the film focuses on Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), an intelligent, yet obsessive, surgeon whose life work is to help reconstruct faces. Within the corridors of Robert’s estate is a mysterious woman named Vera (Elena Anaya). Clad in a flesh-colored body suit, she is locked away and monitored by Robert’s faithful servant, Marilia (Marisa Paredes). Robert experiments on Vera, giving her a new skin that is resistant to burns and mosquito bites. Yet as Robert tests out Vera’s soft flesh, his relationship with his experiment becomes complicated and feelings of anger begin to evolve into feelings of lust. These feelings result in memories from both the doctor and the subject, ones that elucidate the origins of the experiment. Without giving the rest of the story away, it is best to leave an air of mystery around the origins of Vera.
The beauty of Almodóvar’s film, beyond the air of mystery surrounding the story, is that everything is created from an organic place: the colors, the characters, the story, and especially the music (masterfully conducted by Almodóvar’s frequent collaborator, Alberto Iglesias). The cacophony of violin strings overwhelms the audience throughout Vera’s stay in the estate, creating an aural world that matches Vera’s reaction to her environment. The music is never played in vain, but serves some type of narrative purpose, whether it is to accompany the emotional impact of the scene, such as Chris Garneau’s interpretation of “Between the Bars,” or to bring about memories of the past, which is done beautifully by Buika’s song, “Por El Amor de Amar.” Every element serves a particular purpose, constructing a film that is not “created,” but rather “birthed” from Almodóvar’s mind.
However, The Skin I Live In is not simply the rebirth of “the world of Almodóvar,” but a nostalgic reunion with two of his frequent collaborators: Antonio Banderas and Marisa Paredes. Beginning with Volver, Almodóvar has used the element of nostalgia to reunite with his well-known actors and actresses. Two of the most recent examples are Carmen Maura as the ghost mother in Volver, and Rosy de Palma as the memorable actors in the film-within-a-film in Broken Embraces (2009). As Almodóvar grows older, his memories of the past become overwhelming, and at times frightening. Here, these memories manifest as a mad doctor and his faithful lackey, who reunite to create an erotic Frankenstein monster, much in the same fashion that Almodóvar has created this film.
In creating this Frankenstein-like narrative, Almodóvar employs an important element and motif: fragmentation. Fragmentation plays a heavy role in the film, often leading the characters to look for various lost pieces of their lives. For instance, there is Dr. Ledgard who searches for the replacement of his mutilated wife, as well as revenge for the death of his mentally unstable daughter. There is Marilia who looks for a traditional family unit, which she attempts to establish with Robert (her illegitimate son). And there is Vera whose patchwork skin helps her construct herself into a new person. The journeys of the three characters construct Almodóvar’s world, yet it is Vera who offers the audience a means of understanding this environment. Almodóvar uses Vera to explore the idea of fragmentation and the beauty that can be created from the reunion of the various fragmented pieces. She guards the various fragments of her identity through clay sculptures, scattered thoughts on the wall, and yoga. These modes of survival create a feeling of longing for completion, one that drives Vera to find an escape. Vera is the only character who understands that she must unite all these fragments if she wants to survive her ordeal.
Though the film deals with fragmentation, Almodóvar’s work is not a hodgepodge of fragments. Instead, it is carefully constructed work of art. Almodóvar has always been a director who plans things to minute details, which is shown in the intricate work and preproduction that surround his films. This process has matured Almodóvar from the rebellious director of la Movida into a world-renowned auteur, and although age has made Almodóvar a darker man who looks toward the past with a hint of nostalgia and terror, he still creates an evocative web of truth and desire. The Skin I Live In is not a film about the terrors of science, but about the beauty of exploration. It is a reassessment of femininity, which Almodóvar explored in All About My Mother; It is a questioning of the family unit, which he created in What Have I Done to Deserve This (1984) and Law of Desire (1987); And it is a return to the past, which Almodóvar constructed in Volver and Broken Embraces. In many ways, Almodóvar is like Dr. Ledgard, carefully constructing the various fragments of his past. The result of this careful reconstruction is an intricate film, one whose flesh is as beautiful as that of Vera.