Wednesday, October 12, 2011

New York Film Festival: Pedro Almodóvar's The Skin I Live In (Gala Selection)

The Skin I Live In (Gala Selection)
A Film By Pedro Almodóvar

            The colors of the world have never felt deader than in Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In, a bizarre and kinky melodrama from the Spanish director. Although the home of doctor Robert Ledgard is full of excessive paintings and bright colors, it has an all-too orderly feeling about. And of course below the home is the lab, a sterile world of metallic shades and vials of dark red blood. Something has horribly gone wrong in the usually magical world that has defined Spain’s national cinematic treasure, where what once was so comforting now creates fear.

            It’s also what makes The Skin I Live In one of Mr. Almodóvar’s most pleasurable works in some time. While it is certainly in the director’s wheel house, it has the excitement of a young filmmaker throwing every trick he has in the book on the screen. 2008’s Broken Embraces, while meticulously crafted and gorgeously shot, had the feeling of déjà vu for Mr. Almodóvar, retreading on the same thematic and emotional ground covered in his masterful works since the 1980s. But reuniting with Antonio Banderas and bringing in newcomer Elena Anaya, Mr. Almodóvar has made a truly insane film about gender, control, and yes cinema.

            Unfortunately, The Skin I Live In is a film that derives so much pleasure from the twists and turns of its narrative, making it difficult to even begin to talk about (it is loosely adapted from the Thierry Jonquet novel Tarantula). When we first meet Dr. Ledgard, he is working on a new type of skin that feels like something out of a science fiction story—it’s too tough for mosquitos to bite, and resistant to burns. His home out in the country side of Toledo used to be one of the best places for plastic surgery, but Dr. Ledgard has only one patient now, or more a prisoner. That is Vera, who we see stretched out as some sort of paragon of beauty and she performs yoga in a skin tight fabric that covers her from neck to toe. Vera seems both content as well as frustrated with her captivity, as she is given all she wants from Dr. Ledgard’s maid (Marisa Paredes), and spied upon by the good doctor through a series of cameras set in her room.

            That’s all I want to say, but as we are in the world of Mr. Almodóvar, you can always suspect a number of twists and confessions along the way, as he lets us into the mysterious origin of Vera, as well as the cold anger boiling inside Mr. Banderas. But in The Skin I Live In, it is how Mr. Almodóvar goes about it that makes this such an exciting work. Supplemented by a master score by Alberto Iglesias that oscillates between an intense classical violin and a pounding electronic rhythm, The Skin I Live In is indeed indebted to the melodramas that have always defined the best work by the Spaniard, but also films like Eyes Without a Face and Vertigo that give the film a jolt if mystery. The effect is that Mr. Almodóvar seems to tread through new territory as he takes us through a winding tale of revenge that goes off on wild tangents that is strange are endlessly fascinating.

            It’s actually when Mr. Almodóvar reaches into some old bag of tricks that the film becomes a bit frustrating, most notably a long confession by Ms. Paredes that gives us a little too much plot too early, when a slow reveal would be more fun. There is a certain sense throughout the film that Mr. Almodóvar wants to throw every sort of trick on screen, and the plot is something of a macabre and nasty mess, making it a film that might lack of perfection of something like Talk to Her, but adheres to the fun, ferocious side of the director that populates his early work like Live Flesh and Law of Desire. As we see the monster that is Vera slowly come alive, Mr. Almodóvar never lets his themes boil to the surface, but speaks much to the nature of identity and sexual identity in what may be his most profound statement on gender (again, a shame I can’t say more). 

            It also helps that Mr. Almodóvar has crafted a tale around one of his best, early muses, Mr. Banderas. As a movie star, the Spanish actor has been stuck in franchise roles for quite some time. Here, he becomes a cold, meticulous, and man fueled by an anger that has become quite internalized. His cold remorse that sits just under his deadened eyes is one of the delightful pleasures of the film, just as Ms. Ayana (filling in to a role original for Penelope Cruz) works wonders as the most unique Frankenstein monster conceived, an amalgamation of love, lust, passion, anger, and regret.

            The Skin I Live In features all the hallmarks of Mr. Almodóvar’s best films—gorgeously lush colors, a melodramatic narrative, and passionate performances—but the film’s inexplicable tone creates something more disturbing and often wildly funny (how else do you accept a sequence that includes a passionate love scene where one party is a man in a tiger suit?). No one knows the history of cinema better than Mr. Almodóvar, and yet forgetting his usual rules that have made some of his most impressive features, The Skin I Live revels in the glory of a filmmaker who is willing to throw everything on screen, just to see what sticks.

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