Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Mind, Body, and Soul: THE SKIN I LIVE IN

The Skin I Live In, a great, nervy thriller from Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar, is a film that takes a gut-churning twist in the center with a perverse shock that makes perfect, horrifying thematic sense. It also makes the film incredibly difficult to discuss without spoiling the stark, delirious horror of the surprises. I'm going to attempt to steer clear of discussing it in detail. Instead I'll describe the set-up, talk about tone and theme, and hint at the extent of the gorgeous madness of it all as I try to pick my jaw up off the floor. This is melodrama that starts ever so slightly camp, and then scrapes away any sense of overheated frivolity to become an engrossing thriller that grows steadily more horrifying. It’s an ingenious twisty film of great disturbing depth.

The film begins with a half-imagined, but nonetheless potent, sense of something being very, very wrong and then sets out to deliriously prove that glimmer right tenfold. In a secluded house in the Spanish countryside lives a skilled plastic surgeon (Antonio Banderas). We learn that he’s been a part of most of the successful face transplants in the world. He’s respected and talented, but also mysterious. In his home there is a lab where he works growing and testing synthetic skin. His housekeeper (Marisa Paredes) goes about her business, occasionally interacting with the gorgeous patient (Elena Anaya) locked in an upstairs bedroom. Surveillance cameras allow the surgeon and the housekeeper to keep tabs on her. The kitchen has a bank of monitors on a counter. The surgeon’s bedroom has a large TV on which he can view a larger-than-life real-time image of his captive, staring at her sleeping form at night, much as one would regard a beautiful painting.

What’s going on here? Who is this woman? She wears a skin-colored bodysuit. She doesn’t say much. She seems to be accepting of her fate. Is she locked in of her own accord? What is her relationship to these people who are limiting her mobility, restricting her actions, and yet feeding her well, providing her books, clothes, and art supplies. Perhaps she’s being paid to test the surgeon’s new synthetic skin. When he goes away to a medical conference, he presents data on his new breakthrough. When pressed by a colleague to say what, exactly, this skin is being tested on, he’s coy. It’s animal testing, he insists.  

While the surgeon is away, the secluded house receives an unwanted visitor. It’s the season of Carnival. That’s why the housekeeper’s fugitive son (Roberto Álamo) can walk somewhat freely through the streets. He’s dressed in a gaudy tiger costume and insists his mother let him into the house. Bad idea. The psychopathic son spies the imprisoned patient on the screen, ties up his mother to a kitchen chair and heads upstairs to sexually assault the captive. “You aren’t my son!” his mother shouts at him. “I just birthed you!”

When the surgeon arrives at the home and sees what is going on, he fights the intruder off. After all this, I still haven’t arrived at the most shocking developments the film contains. This is mere prologue. The stage is set for further shocks. In the aftermath of this startling violence, the film unravels, flashing back through time to trace the traumas and the terror underlying the current situations. And that’s when things get really complicated. The film has a complex flashback structure that elegantly floats through time, revealing the full extent of the story’s horrors with a clinical series of emotional slices.

We learn the surgeon is mourning the deaths of his wife and his daughter. They died years apart, in separate tragedies that are revealed over the course of the film. He’s been left consumed by mourning and revenge, a cauldron of emotion held in check and funneled into a medicinal drive to control. Could this have something to do with the young man (Jan Cornet) who has gone missing from his home in a nearby town?

The surgeon’s methodical approach to his revenge never wavers, growing eerier with stillness and patient silence. Banderas delivers such a tightly controlled and nuanced performance that mimics Almodóvar’s relatively restrained stylistic approach here. This is a masterfully outlandish film with wild moments adorned with the director’s typically colorful, gorgeous mise-en-scène. Yet there’s such restraint here, a gorgeous exterior of patience that belies the total chaos beneath.

This isn’t a film of traditional thrills and jump scares. It’s the kind of insinuating horror that slips up under the skin and expands, slowly enveloping you with dread from the inside out. It’s a psychological horror film on the subject of identity. Who are you when everything you are on the outside has been taken away? To merely say that the film is creepy and disturbing and the main character is an unscrupulous plastic surgeon is to wrongly imply that the film is some kind of grotesquerie that lingers on bodily harm. No, though the film is fairly explicit, the grotesqueness of the film is solely on the plot level, the thematic implications a red-blooded, twisty destabilizing force inflicted upon the characters that pulls under the audience as well. The horror of the surgeon is his quiet madness. The horror of the patient is – as we learn – her quiet resilience. Banderas and Anaya have magnificent stares, rich soulful eyes that burn holes in the screen and in this film carry the weight of greater traumas than we can even begin to imagine. At times, I found myself squirming in sympathy with the pain on screen.

The film is a intense, stylish, slinky horror film of turbulent sexuality, violence, death, and identity. There’s a fluidity to the plot and the characters (and the magnificent score from Alberto Iglesias) that matches the lush style and creates a stirringly distressing unity of purpose. Like the best of Almodóvar, the film deals in doubles, in lies, in sexual secrets, in familial traumas, but here it feels fresh all over again. It’s a case of an auteur finding striking new ways to work through his favorite themes. I was carried up into the film’s style and, almost before I knew it, I was horrified and moved in equal measure. The final scene of the film is a knockout, a moment that takes the destabilizing twists of the movie’s melodrama and horror to their most moving conclusion. Yes, I found myself thinking then and several other times throughout, not only does Almodóvar go there, but he earns it.

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