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Original title: La piel que habito

D: Pedro Almodóvar / 120m

Cast: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes, Jan Cornet, Roberto Álamo, Eduard Fernández, José Luis Gómez, Blanca Suárez, Susi Sánchez, Bárbara Lennie

What happens when a multi-award winning and very well respected director gets it completely wrong? The answer is a movie called The Skin I Live In. Since making his first feature, the anarchic Folle… folle… fólleme Tim! (1978), Pedro Almodóvar has presided over Spanish moviemaking like a benevolent enfant terrible, promoting home grown talent while making his own idiosyncratic movies and gaining an international reputation for flamboyance, passion and high-camp melodrama. He’s a true original, and a writer/director who has always been unapologetic about the movies he’s made, and their content (anyone who’s seen the opening five minutes of Matador (1986) will know what I mean). But sometimes, even the most innovative and instinctive of directors will take on a project they really should have steered well away from, and The Skin I Live In is Almodóvar’s. In attempting to fuse his usual movie making style with a genre he’s never worked in before, the director of such modern classics as Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) and High Heels (1991) has made his most unconvincing and mundane movie to date.

The movie begins with an old-fashioned two-pronged mystery; who is the woman (Anaya) being kept in a locked room by renowned surgeon Dr Robert Ledgard (Banderas), and why? As with all good mystery thrillers, there are no answers that are immediately forthcoming, just a number of clues and a few clever hints. What is clear is that Ledgard has been researching and cultivating an artificial skin that is resistant to fire and insect bites. And soon it becomes clear that he has been using this artificial skin on the young woman (whose name we learn is Vera). And for a while, that’s the movie. There’s a housekeeper, Marilia (Paredes), but she doesn’t appear relevant to the storyline or the plot. Oh, wait, here comes her criminal son, Zeca (Álamo), who’s on the run and needs a place to hide. When he realises there’s an attractive young woman in the house, he has one thing on his mind: sex, and whether she’s willing or not. Fortunately, Ledgard returns home (a little late, to be fair) and Zeca is “taken care of”.

It’s at this point that the script, by Almodóvar and his brother Agustín, decides its time to reveal just what is going on, and why. Cue a late-night confession from Marilia, a flashback from Ledgard’s perspective, and then, more intriguingly, a lengthier flashback from Vera’s point of view. This passage reveals almost everything you could need to know about what’s happening, why it’s happening, and how it’s all happened in the first place. The why, somewhat inevitably, is borne out of revenge, with Ledgard targeting a young man, Vicente (Cornet), for a particular misdeed that has gone unpunished. This futher explains what’s happening, and how it has all come about, but with the flashbacks out of the way, the movie begins to unravel as it heads for a melodramatic but also muted ending. And that’s without a coda that would work better as the beginning of a whole other movie.

Almodóvar has been quoted as saying that The Skin I Live In is “a horror story without screams or frights”. That may sound clever, or even something of a challenge to achieve, but the problem is that while Almodóvar may be good at exploring the lives of those living on the margins of Spanish society (very good in fact), when it comes to horror it’s obvious he doesn’t have the grounding or the knowledge to put together the kind of terrifying experience required of genuinely good horror movies. Instead, Almodóvar plays with his Frankenstein-lite scenario in such a way that he leeches all the horror out of it and leaves the audience with a soap opera melodrama that occasionally acts as a psychological or psycho-sexual thriller. Almodóvar isn’t really interested in making a horror movie; instead he seems more interested in seeing if he can fit horror themes into one of his standard dysfunctional family tragedies.

The result is a movie that proves disjointed and erratic when it comes to the characters and their motivations (Ledgard does a lot of things that are baffling or poorly thought through by the script), and which seems happier in observing things from a distance – much as Ledgard does with Vera. This makes it harder for the audience to engage or sympathise with the characters, and scenes where this might be regarded as essential in terms of building or maintaining tension, remain flat and unremarkable. Almodóvar is better off having his characters express their emotions, no matter how histrionic they might be, but here he opts for a restrained approach that gives the movie a chilly, displaced feel. It’s another bad decision that affects the movie greatly, and leaves the cast adrift completely. Banderas (reuniting with Almodóvar after a twenty-one year gap) plays Ledgard as a man determined on revenge but who makes some very strange choices along the way, while Anaya has the awkward task of denying her character’s back story while at the same time, needing it to perform her role adequately.

Ultimately, it’s a movie that doesn’t work because its director doesn’t know what kind of movie it should be in order to work. With that in mind, Almodóvar’s attempts at making his audience squirm, end up doing so, but for all the wrong reasons. Dread is replaced by unwarranted black humour, terror never has enough time to establish itself, and outright horror is knocked down and killed by a reliance on turgid melodrama. The movie may look good – Antxón Gómez’s production design is perfect for expressing the clinical, sterile environment that Ledgard inhabits – and it may have a surprisingly romantic score courtesy of Alberto Iglesias, but these are plusses that are unable to make up for the wayward, tonally artless moments that Almodóvar peppers his script with. When a horror movie fails in asserting itself as a horror movie and never quite realises where and why it’s going wrong, therein lies the true horror.

Rating: 4/10 – despite occasional moments where Almodóvar reminds us of his auteur status, The Skin I Live In is a movie whose purpose and raison d’être is never compelling enough to warrant the viewer’s full investment of their time; with way too many scenes in its last half hour that provide bafflement instead of suspense, the movie is proof that some directors should stick to what they know, and know what they should stick to. (13/31)

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