Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The Skin I Live In

2011. Dir: Pedro Almodóvar. Starring: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Jan Cornet, Marisa Paredes and Blanca Suárez. ●●●●○

What is horror? Random House Dictionary defines it as "an overwhelming and painful feeling caused by something frightfully shocking, terrifying, or revolting; a shuddering fear", and that rigid explanation helps to conjure up the typical horror film audience, spellbound, dumbstruck, petrified in their seats. Desperate to dry out and defend the lonely teenager however transfixed by the seductive power of the knife-wielding, supernatural maniac.

The rules of the genre, as typified in the self-parodying chatter of the Scream franchise, are deceptively simple; open to reinterpretation, sure, but constant in their structure. It's therefore surprising that more established auteurish directors don't dip their toes, turning to genre exercises to stretch their skills in the way that Pedro Almodóvar does with The Skin I Live In.

Perhaps it's just a snobbish contempt for the form, after all many low-budget indies use tired horror cliches and over-egged metaphors and any idiot with a jump-cut can effectively startle an audience. Personally I expect it's more complex, there's a fear of making horror endemic in cinematic circles, there's a sweat inducing terror because making an effective chiller is a Herculean task. In our post-Gorno world where every sick fantasy imaginable has been seen audiences seem to need something extra to bring them to the edges of their seat (of course in reality it's the slow creep of dread that's always worked best for scaring crowds and that has nothing to do with the buckets of blood). It's a shame as Pedro here proves there's plenty of life in horror yet.

It's true to say Almodóvar has created a horror movie, with snatches of obsession, guilt and Stockholm syndrome, as well as drawing on modern body horror and the Frankenstein legend, it's equally true the film doesn't overplay the graphic sexualisation of violence - that is not to say there is no blood just that it feels like a natural conclusion to the action not the point of it - and could therefore be watched by even the most squeamish of genre avoiders.

Explaining the plot is a tough nut to crack, you may have notice I've been putting it off, mainly because it's a dense tale full of the melodramatic familial connections and soap-style revelations that we've come to expect from Almodóvar. There are also twists upon twists and to say much will spoil the feelings you get from the movie as it washes over you (not that the twists are especially shocking, they even feel natural and obvious in the moment, but to let the cat out of the bag before will deny you the opportunity to find out the delicious truth at the right time). Suffice to say the movie opens in a large isolated Spanish mansion housing an obsessive skin doctor (Antonio Banderas), his over protective housekeeper (Marisa Paredes) and a mysterious catsuit-wearing patient, practising yoga in a locked room (Elena Anaya). You can see the Frankenstein connection already. Why is Banderas have an enormous TV screen in his bedroom just to watch Anaya sleep? Why does Anaya relate to the sculpture of Louise Bourgeois? Who is the tiger at the gate? Is Banderas more obsessed about his wife that cheated on him, his daughter who was raped or the connected suicides of them both?

Some, but not all, of these questions will be answered satisfactorily. Others will come and go, getting lost in the ridiculous lines "I have madness in my entrails" and lost subplots (the artificial skin Banderas has been perfecting for Anaya seems like just an excuse to let him interact with other scientists). That said both Banderas and Anaya do fantastic work, as does Jan Cornet in a minor role I won't spoil, there's a moment we laugh out loud at his predicament yet when a tear roles down his cheek the entire audience went silent.

Of course I found problems with this movie, Almodóvar can't help being himself. The frame is gorgeously vibrant and exciting, the action perfectly paced and gripping, but full of melodramatic meanderings that could have come from any number of his other pictures. Some of which aid the story, others have no business being there.

Overall I would highly recommend this picture to horror geeks and non-fans alike for the genre busting and interesting departures Almodóvar makes. But remember it is Almodóvar making those departures.


Jose said...

Ugh this just made me NEED this movie ASAP! Interesting about the way Pedro tackles a new genre.

TomS said...

Almodovar always fascinates..his movies are wicked fun, and have what I like to call a high metabolism. If this were done by almost anyone else, I might not be too enthused...but I really must see this.

Colleen said...

I can't wait till this comes out. So few movies these days scare me. I feel like horror filmakers have no idea what horror is. The last films that scared me were Silence of the Lambs and Dead Ringers. It's been a long time!

Runs Like A Gay said...

Jose and Tom,

I can't imagine you'll be disappointed, Pedro supplies an overabundance of style as you'd expect.


Don't go in expecting to be scared by the experience, it's horror through the vision of a soap bubble, the actions are horrific but purely cinematic.

Alex in Movieland said...

It might be my first Almodovar ever I'm not excited about... :) will see it, but not excited.

I need another Mala Education soon! Pedro, pls bring back the gays!

Runs Like A Gay said...


I don't want to spoil anything but there's certainly gay subtext here as there is with any story derived in part from Frankenstein. You might be surprised.