The Skin I Live In (2011)

FILM, Film Society

Previously at the Wellington Film Society: Almodóvar’s dark days.

Pedro Almodóvar’s career, as is often discussed, appears to have gotten darker and darker over the years. And this darkness seems to have coincided with a richer perspective on gender, sexual politics, and characterisation. The Skin I Lived In (La piel que habito) is so dark it’s in danger of being categorised as simply a horror film—one with obvious nods to Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and the novel Mygale by Thierry Jonquet. It’s much more than that. A deliciously subversive piece of narrative trickery, The Skin I Live In may come to be known as one of the more enjoyable films in Almodóvar’s oeuvre.

The film finds Almodóvar reunited with his muse of the ’80s and early ’90s, Antonio Banderas. Banderas plays noted surgeon Robert Ledgard, whose mysterious country house holds a fair few secrets. To reveal much otherwise would give away the narrative’s sordid twists, but it’s fair to say that Almodóvar is happy to build audience expectations up in one direction and then smash them into others. He’s assisted by some impressive performances—Banderas is subtle and compelling, and avoids turning his character into someone who had just walked off the set of The Human Centipede, and Elena Anaya (a dark piece of casting) captures the fascinating ambivalence of Vera.

The film also boasts an unpredictable take on relationships, memory, gender, decay, and sexuality. It’s the first reasonably mainstream film in a long time that I can recall in which a transgendered protagonist does not get killed—and in fact, ends up displaying real strength. A few of the typical Almodóvar touches remain: his uncomfortable depictions of rape (that come close to bordering on the juvenile), male obsession characterised by intrusion, penetration and domination, and female strength in amongst male violence. The use of horror allows Almodóvar (like some of the best horror films) to turn what would otherwise be melodramatic and two-dimensional characterisation into something a bit more resonant.

The framing is claustrophobic, and despite being set in Toledo, it’s mostly interiors and darkness enveloped exteriors that are used. Few sets are employed for what is ostensibly an expansive script, and there’s more than a feeling of insularity in the characters’ mindset (a frequent concern of Almodóvar’s), heightened by the way the film is shot. It’s also highly entertaining stuff, and as someone who wasn’t particularly impressed with Almodóvar‘s early films, his work from the last decade is finally starting to convince me that as a filmmaker, he can be fascinating as both a provocateur and an entertainer.

The Skin I Live In screened as a sneak preview for Wellington Film Society members. This year’s programme and details on how to join are available at filmsociety.wellington.net.nz. Upcoming highlights include Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright, a miniature 1940s film noir series (including the topical Mildred Pierce), Svend Gade’s gender-bending silent film version of Hamlet, the ever-reliable Goethe Instit programme (most notably, Fassbinder’s World on a Wire), and a number of Italian and French classics.

Film Societies in twelve centres run an annual programme of weekly/bi-monthly film screenings. Membership entitles the holder free admission to screenings for a 12-month period. Further details are available online at filmsociety.wellington.net.nz. For information about a film society closest to you, visit the New Zealand Federation of Film Societies.