Movie Review: Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito) [“Spoiler Free” As Usual]

Sleeping With the Enemy


How the Hunter Gets Captured by the Prey

(A Tribute to the Les Marvelettes)

In short, Skin, an adaptation of a French novel, is strictly for the fans, the Almodóvarists, as the five walkouts and three comebacks that I counted at an E Street Cinema showing attested. (I consider myself an Almodóvarist, by the way.)

More than anything else, the picture marks the twenty-two year reunion of the outrageous director with Antonio Banderas, his “acteur fétiche” (roughly translated as “idol actor”). The cinematic synergy that the late French director Claude Chabrol shared with Isabelle Huppert is the same magic that happens when Banderas and Almodóvar work together. (Both Banderas and Huppert made six films with their country’s acclaimed auteurs).

VEINS-GLORIOUS: Banderas hovers over “Vera” (Elena Anaya); capture d’écran de film poster. (IMDB)

Like Banderas’ previous collaborations, he plays his calling card – the “lovestruck madman” – to the tilt. In this case, lines such as “I didn’t know your skin was so soft” sound less like a come-on than a creepy, cannibalistic observation.

Banderas’ character, Brazilian-born Robert Ledgard, is a surgeon whose home life is thrown into disarray when tragedy strikes twice; first, with the death of his wife, Gal, and then their daughter, Norma (perhaps an allusion to Brazilian singers Gal Costa and Norma Bengell).

Grief-stricken and with nothing but trouble in mind, Banderas sets out to revenge his daughter’s death whose fragile mind was shattered permanently after a party guest, Vicente (Jan Cornet) attempts to rape her after she’s released from a mental hospital.

Before getting revenge, he also aims to break ground as the scientist who creates fire-resistant skin for burned victims. (His wife committed suicide after she finally saw à la Fanny from Mr. Skeffington what a fiery car crash had done to her face.)

His test subject is a woman named “Vera” who he imprisons in his “El Cigarral” estate in Toledo, Spain as he experiments on her. He names the experiment after his wife and transforms “Vera” into her image. Soulful Laura Lee’s “Her Picture Matches Mine” is taking to the extreme.

Furthermore, the experiment also borrows a page from Myra Breckinridgethe throwback Raquel Welch vehicle, by revisiting the Papa-Daddy snip-snip (i.e. “post-op”-mania) from Todo sobre mi madre, albeit with an unwitting patient.

“Vera” is a far from compliant test subject and repeatedly tries to escape Ledgard’s tortuous examinations and lustful propositions.

In the first six years of imprisonment, she pesters Ledgard and the estate’s “servant”, Ledgard’s mother Marilia (Almodóvar regular Marisa Paredes) for a “thread and needle.” The “thread and needle” being her coded way of saying she wants to go home and rejoin sewing alongside her mother and her partner Cristina in their woman’s clothing boutique.

The Ledgards deny her request, since “Vera” had previously slit her throat to break free from the small cell, in which Robert, an obsessive voyeur, ogles her from. He makes sure to gets his money’s worth out of the surveillance cameras installed in her room.

With time (“avec le temps, va tout s’en va...”),”Vera”, much like the heroine from the last Almodóvar-Banderas collabo, 1990’s Atame!, develops a fondness for him – of the Stockholm Syndrome sort.

A later scene symbolizes the love-hate relationship between “Vera” and Robert as the former watches a National Geographic special. In the special, a cheetah successfully captures a swift baby gazelle.

Unlike the gazelle, Vera’s only playing dead by yielding to Robert’s desire. This development rightfully worries Robert’s mother when her only surviving son starts sleeping with danger. (During Carnival, justice finally catches up with Zeca, the criminal Ledard brother, in the form of a warm gun. He was cast out from the family after he cuckolded his older brother).

“I’ve got insanity in my entrails,” she quips as she sigh-fully ponders the fates of her “born crazy” sons.

Although Skin has glimmers of Almodóvar’s black humor and witty one-liners, the humor sprinkled throughout in the film is often jarring as the far-fetched plot hurriedly rushes to a close – pacing be damned!

Understandably, many viewers (like those E Street walkouts) will probably feel let down, especially those that stick around for a climax that comes too soon. Sadly for Banderas and Almodóvar, their reunion is not as successful as the Almodóvar-Carmen Maura reunion in 2006’s Volver.

Skin is still very enjoyable as Almodóvar’s Frankenstein as RFI dubbed the film.

Rating6.5/10 – Pure Escapism

Side-note: Almodóvar tosses asides the quaint lovers’ lanes of Pleasantville. His flashback to a 2006 lovers’ lane  is not one of fogged-up windows, moaning, and rockin’ Convertibles. He shows what really goes down (and on who…). Possibly, the most hilarious part of the picture.

UPDATED @ 6:00 p.m. 20 dec. – Oh yeah, be sure to check out Concha Buika, the singer from the flashback sequence preceding the lovers’ lane scene.

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