A crazy marriage of camp and horrorMovie Review Thursday, October 20th, 2011
My initial reaction to The Skin I Live In, Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film, was: “That movie was crazy-pants.” This isn’t a particularly articulate response for a film critic, but occasionally there are times when movies are so jaw-dropping that words like “crazy-pants” seem to be the most adept at explaining the experience. Almodóvar has never made movies that could be described as naturalistic, realistic or even plausible – and never subtle. His films are either farce or melodrama, often both at once, and his characters tend toward extreme emotions and behavior; from adultery to murder and passionate love to searing hate. This is matched by his trademark visuals; his intense, bright colors, in scenery and as well as with costumes, are always recognizably Almodóvar. He loves strong women in peril and people who could be called queer – gay, transsexual or just plain weird. All of this is going on in The Skin I Live In, his adaptation of the French novel Tarantula by Thierry Jonquetthatfuses noir, horror, science fiction and camp in a way that is, well, a bit crazy-pants.
The Skin I Live In is Almodóvar’s first film with Antonio Banderas in 21 years, after spending much of the ’80s working together. Banderas plays Dr. Robert Ledgard, a brilliant and dashing surgeon whose wife and daughter have both killed themselves after being the victims of tragic crimes. His estate doubles as a hospital, and it is watched over by his family’s doting, humorless long-time housekeeper Norma (Blanca Suárez). The movie opens with Norma sending breakfast – the orange juice full of various medications – through a dumbwaiter to a gorgeous young woman wearing a skin-tight body suit who is locked in a large room in Ledgard’s house.
We shortly find out that this is Vera, Robert’s patient, and that he has been using her body to experiment with a new kind of synthesized skin, ostensibly to heal her disfiguring burns. It is implied that Vera is crazy and suicidal and that Robert is her savior. When Norma’s psychotic son shows up on Mardi Gras dressed as a tiger, (welcome to Almodóvar world), he sees Vera through a security camera and immediately believes that she is Robert’s dead wife, who has somehow escaped death. When we discover that Vera has been surgically transformed into a replica of Robert’s lost love, we know that we’re headed somewhere rather sinister. If I reveal any more of the plot, the literally breath-taking twists and revelations will be less fun. It’s like a long episode of Nip/Tuck filtered through the lenses of Alfred Hitchcock, Douglas Sirk and Pedro Almodóvar.
The Skin I Live In is hardly one of Almodóvar’s best, because his better movies are able to marry the camp and melodrama with profound human emotion and insight. This is mostly a marriage of camp and horror. But I still found it wonderfully fun. The plot-twists are nearly ludicrous, but the actors play them straight. As Vera, the gorgeous Elena Anaya does fear, peril and determination as impeccably as Penelope Cruz, one of Almodóvar’s muses who was originally cast in the role. Blanca Suárez’s Norma is as fierce a character; Suárez is the sort of actress who can communicate a whole life-history in a single look. Banderas does the creepy doctor thing pretty well, but a better actor would have been either scarier or more sympathetic. Intellectually, I understood his motivations. However, I couldn’t feel them. They were just crazy-pants.
The Skin I Live In
Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Starring Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya and Blanca Suárez
Opens Oct. 14
At Landmark Hillcrest
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