Jarv’s Birthday Series Redux: The Skin I Live In (2011)
Welcome back to Jarv’s Birthday Series. We all know the rules by now: review one film released as near as possible to your birthday. In my case, that’s 23rd August.
The first film: Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In. I’ve got a track record with Almodovar, usually hating them, but he’s a critical darling and the films rack up insane ratings everywhere. The premise of this one is particularly unpleasant as well, so this could be rough.
Contains filthy perverts and even filthier spoilers below
Before I start, let me take a few moments to explain why I’m doing it again. There was a small cock up with the old list, and as such I was forced to pick another Birthday film for 2009. The film was the awful Post Grad, but the discussion below the line was far more interesting than the piss poor film warranted. Secondly, I’m running out of closed series, and I don’t want to flood the place with endless vault reviews. So, to make up for it, I thought carefully about another alternative series.
There’s one director out there who only a complete nutter would take on every single one of his films: Pedro Almodovar. Placing a sordid mix of gender identity issues, sexual identity issues, perversion, melodrama, and religious confusion on screen, the elderly Spanish Filth merchant has made some of the most critically adored, but intensely unpleasant and difficult to watch films of the last few decades. In my infinite wisdom, as Mrs. Jarv loves them, I’ve seen almost all of the old pervert’s output. So, I thought it would be a piece of piss to rattle off the entire catalogue (which reminds me Just Pillow Talk, I haven’t forgotten, and will be sending you Tie Me Up). When I went to do a bit of cursory research into the films, I noticed that the most recent, The Skin I Live In, had a UK release date of 24th August. I then began to look back, and well, blow me down, loads of them have release dates between 22nd and 24th August. This set me on my way.
I have to be absolutely honest here, and admit that I approached The Skin I Live In with no degree of trepidation. For the most part, Almodovar is at his worst with Antonio Banderas in the film, and the subject matter appeared to be both gruesome and overly sensational. Nevertheless, Mrs. Jarv loves his stuff, and there’s always a promise of some spectacular nudity to help me get through it, so I bravely poured a large whisky, steeled myself for the worst and pressed play.
The Skin I Live In is about Dr. Roberto (Antonio Banderas). Roberto is a renowned plastic surgeon who has developed an artificial skin (using something called transgenics) to help heal burn victims. His personal life, on the other hand is a raving mess. He’s got a young woman called Vera (Elena Anaya) imprisoned in his house, monitored 24/7 by CCTV. She’s going slowly insane, and between acts of self-mutilation, wears a full body stocking, practises yoga, and writes on her wall to stave off the impending madness. It’s clear pretty early on that Roberto is obsessed, and the skin is for her- ostensibly to cover up burns. However, he’s named the skin “Gal” after his ex-wife (more on her in a moment), and it is apparent that Vera looks exactly like her. Forbidden to experiment further on his skin, Roberto retreats to his “clinic” in the middle of nowhere to smoke opium with his prisoner, and it’s clear that she’s not well, suffering from a minor dose of Stockholm Syndrome. Mind you, he’s obviously bat shit loopy, so let’s just hope for the best.
Alarm bells were beginning to sound at this point, if I’m entirely honest.
This is when the film starts to go off the rails. At this point, we still don’t know the root cause of Roberto’s psychosis, but Almodovar was never one to shy away from repulsive subject matter, so here we go….
The doorbell rings, and it’s a weirdo dressed as a tiger. The oddball, Zeca (Roberto Álamo) is visiting his mother, Roberto’s maid Marilia (Marisa Paredes). He’s a pervert criminal, wanted by the Spanish police for drugs offences, robbery and, it is implied, rape. Then Almodovar bins the implication altogether, and feels a need to show us exactly what a bastard Zeca is, as he ties his mother up, runs up the stars, and viciously rapes Vera. All the while, he’s talking to her about how nothing’s changed and she still loves the “hot fuck” he’s giving her. Roberto, arriving home in the nick of time, takes a gun and splatters Zeca all over the bedspread.
The Alarm bell that had started ringing is now going like a fucking klaxon.
The next day (bleurgh), Marilia is cleaning up the mess and explaining the history of Zeca and Roberto to Vera while she’s doing it. It turns out that Zeca and Roberto are both her sons (although the doctor doesn’t know this). Zeca began an affair with Roberto’s wife (hence all the foul chat when he was raping her), and when eloping left her to burn to death in the car. Roberto found and rescued her, and kept her hideously deformed mess away from reflections and so forth. One day, when his daughter Norma (Ana Mena) was playing in the garden (helpfully shown to us in flashbacks), Gal caught sight of her reflection and threw herself through the window, with inevitably fatal consequences.
Back in the present day, Vera, for some reason, begins a sexual relationship with Roberto. However, she’s unable to consummate it due to damage “the tiger” had done to her. I’ll just leave it at that, for the minute, but when the twist comes, I guaran-fucking-tee, that you’ll lose your lunch. We then get another helpful flashback to a wedding 6 years ago. Roberto’s daughter Norma is out, for the first time in a long time. It turns out she’s been in therapy and is on a combination of psychoactive drugs to stop her going off the rails. She hooks up with a group of teenagers, including Vicente (Jan Cornet). Roberto loses sight of her, and goes to find her, blundering across a hugely gratuitous teenage orgy. As he’s nearly flattened by a motorbike, he spots her shoes lying on the path close to her casually discarded jumper. Finding Norma unconscious (yes, here we go again), he rouses her only for her to begin screaming like a banshee. Turns out, and I bet this doesn’t come as much of a surprise, Vicente raped her (which Almodovar helpfully lets us see as well later in the film), the results of which are predictable and depressing. Yup, she throws herself out of a window as well.
The alarm now sounds like a doomsday siren.
OK- here we go, this is spoiler time, and it’s viciously and foully unpleasant. Tastefully filmed, thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but as an idea, this one really was plucked from one of the Maquis De Sade’s worst fantasies. Brace yourselves- or just skip the next 2 paragraphs- if you want it to be unspoiled.
Roberto’s mind has cracked as a result of this second tragedy. He stalks Vicente, and discovers him to be a dressmaker in his mother’s shop. Roberto hunts him down and kidnaps his victim before imprisoning him in a cellar. Vicente begins to manifest signs of Stockholm Syndrome in that he thanks Roberto for visiting and so forth, but Roberto has plans, and not very pleasant plans at that. Roberto forges some documents and assembles a specialist medical team who perform, and this is where the film drops into place, a forced sex-change operation on Vicente. We’re then treated to the various stages in Vicente’s transformation into Vera.
Back in the present day and Vera and Roberto’s relationship is developing nicely. Despite trust issues, which Vera seems happy to get over, even saving his perverted ass from blackmail, he’s opened the doors to her, allowing her to go shopping and so forth. Marilia, sensibly, doesn’t trust her a bit, but Roberto pulls rank and orders her to accommodate Vera’s every win. This is a mistake. Their second attempt to consummate the relationship also goes badly (she excuses this as still being due to damage from the tiger), to which he suggests anal sex as a solution. She’s purchased lubricant, but intentionally left it downstairs, and uses this as an excuse to get the gun and waste Roberto and Marilia. Escaping into the night, she returns to her mother’s shop and introduces herself as Vicente. Film ends.
The reason I’ve put such a lengthy plot description into this one is that it’s nigh-on impossible to discuss what I’m about to discuss without spoiling to a greater or lesser extent. However, before I do that, I’m just going to talk about the acting for a moment. This could well be the best performance in Banderas’ career. His Roberto is an obviously damaged man, with a clearly fractured psyche, who operates on a combination of drugs and a pure steel will. Furthermore, he’s got no little charisma, and in the more chilling moments of the film, is able to examine his victim with a coldly clinical eye that is genuinely frightening. Banderas is absolutely superb here, riveting, in fact, and it makes me wonder if he’s got a future playing psychotics. Secondly, Anaya is also superb. Vera is a damned difficult role to play, for obvious reasons, and she’s both luminously beautiful and downright captivating on screen. That The Skin I live in didn’t make me puke and was actually enjoyable despite the odds rests a lot on their shoulders. Cornet, who has the hardest part of the three, is also fantastic as the victim of the film, and his delicate, almost effeminate, features are put to good use by Almodovar. In his case, actually, it’s a nigh-on perfect marriage of material and actor. The only flip side is Paredes. I can’t be arsed to check, but I’m almost certain she’s a Telenovela actress, and it really comes across in the film, even though she does get the worst of the melodramatic dialogue.
Which brings me to the next point. The Skin I Live In is billed as Almodovar’s first attempt at Horror. It’s nothing of the sort, in fact, if you look at the themes running through the film it’s pretty standard for an Almodovar. His movies usually deal with sexual identity and mental illness, and when coupled with the subject matter here, what we actually have is a melodrama. In fact, I’d almost go further than that, and say that what we have here is actually a Telenovela. Look at some of the plot directions: long lost brother who had an affair with the wife returning to wreak havoc, hidden identity of the mother that nobody knows, mentally unbalanced daughter locked away in a home out of sight, ridiculously elaborate revenge, etc etc etc. The Skin I Live In is without a shadow of a doubt the classiest Telenovela that I’ve ever seen.
Once the penny drops that we’re watching an outrageously sensational soap opera this actually becomes an enjoyable film. It’s ridiculously contrived and melodramatic, but Almodovar sensibly keeps the majority of the unpleasantness miles away from the screen- with the only real “shock” shot being Gal’s hideously disfigured visage. I do wish he’d kept the rapes off camera as well, as the first one is truly revolting, and the second is deeply disturbing in a different way. Nevertheless, aside from that, there’s a strong element of humour in the film, with some scenes, such as the dildos, being unsettling but, damn it, funny in a black as midnight kind of way. The success here is purely down to the exceptional cast, and so credit where it’s due.
Almodovar also doesn’t hang around. He knows, or at least I hope he does, that the events here are absolutely absurd, and so the film blazes along at real speed. He doesn’t allow himself the luxury of wallowing in the more “dramatic” scenes such as Roberto seeing Norma in the asylum, instead it’s put out in a perfunctory style before he moves on to the next insane moment. Coupled with the frankly exquisite cinematography on display (this is a beautiful film), and I have to note that The Skin I Live in is a gorgeous, fast paced movie.
Nevertheless, the central premise of the film as revealed in the second half is so nauseatingly unpleasant that it is very difficult to get past. I find myself conflicted here, because while Anaya is absolutely stunning, and sports a magnificent rack that the old filth merchant makes her get out at pretty much every opportunity, I found myself struggling to hold in the vomit when Banderas is getting down and dirty with her. To be fair, the transformation sequence takes place over years, and Roberto is portrayed consistently as a mentally ill, so I’m being all judgemental and whatnot for no really acceptable reason, but I will still bet that this is the reaction Almodovar was going for.
Overall, I’m going to go high on this one. It’s clearly a good film, and probably in the top 3 Almodovar’s that I’ve ever seen. It is, which is highly unusual for him, an enjoyable movie, and despite the subject matter strangely restrained. The plot is flaming ridiculous, but the performances are so good, and it’s so good-looking that I’m going to give it 2 and a half dirty old gits out of a possible 4. I suspect that my problems with it are more down to me than the film itself, and as I’ve got a strong suspicion that this was intentional, I can’t ignore it.
A surprisingly good film for 2011, and in less classy hands this could have been utterly repellent. I’m not sure I recommend it, though.
Until next time,
The Full List for the Birthday Series Redux:
- 2011- The Skin I Live In (2.5 out of 4)
- 2010- The Last Exorcism
- 2009- Post Grad (1 out of 4)
- 2008- The House Bunny
- 2007- Knocked Up
- 2006- Volver
- 2005- Red Eye
- 2004- Dead Clowns
- 2003- Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life
- 2002- Talk to Her
- 2001- Jeeper’s Creepers
- 2000- Gossip
- 1999- All About My Mother
- 1998- The X-Files
- 1997- Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion
- 1996- The Last Supper
- 1995- The Usual Suspects
- 1994- The Color of Night
- 1993- Surf Ninjas
- 1992- The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag
- 1991- Pump Up the Volume
- 1990- Wild at Heart
- 1989- Bull Durham
- 1988- Crossing Delancey
- 1987- The Big Easy
- 1986- Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2
- 1985- Better off Dead
- 1984- Oxford Blues
- 1983- MetalStorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn
- 1982- The Thing
- 1981- Honky Tonk Freeway
- 1980- Schock
- 1979- Rich Kids
- 1978- Coma