Thursday, December 29, 2011

Review: The Skin I Live In: Almodovar lives well

There is something very strange going on at the Ledgard place. Roberto, a plastic surgeon is nurturing the care and recovery of a woman in a skin suit who possibly has crippling burns to most of her body. She lives from day to day being served food and reading material via a dumb waiter while she makes bizarre sculptures out of clay and torn clothes. The servants obey her but she is a prisoner.

Roberto comes home from a lecture in which he strongly hints that he has crossed the line in an experimental procedure involving synthesised skin. He turns on the giant screen in his den and luxuriates over the sight of his patient, an unwrinkled beauty turned away with all the glory of her posterior view on show. Noticing something, he rushes to her room and finds that she has slashed her wrists. Having an impeccably well equipped operating theatre at home he is able to stitch her up and lecture her, advising that the jugular is a better choice for those serious about their suicide.

Who is she? If not his dead wife is she someone he has saved from a similar fate (she burned to death in a car accident) and fashioned in the image of his beloved? Why? And why does all this just seem to coast?

Whoopsie! Six years earlier ...

No, this film is still in cinemas and it is so fragile against spoilers that I'm stopping here. I can say that the plot involves the most troubling act of revenge I have ever seen depicted on screen. Also, that if you go to this film expecting one of Almodovar's slightly off kilter melodramas keep thinking that and enjoy the ride. He has never gone so far into the realm of fable as he does here but this is no fairy tale. Also, if you feel that you've given it forty-five minutes of your time and it really isn't moving anywhere, sit tight, it moves.

If possible scenes of surgical violence turn you off be advised that you'll find NONE here. Aldmodovar has exercised great grace in removing any distracting gore from a tale that might be red with it in lesser hands. No, he is not concerned with violence. There's plenty of anger here, anger at the human race sinking into its own hell, anger at the anger and counter anger at that. And there is grief, grief that strains toward a naive kind of perfection which rewards its witnesses with a show of futility. (I'm reaaaaaally trying to avoid spoilers here.)

So what can I say about it? I can say that loss, a long standing theme for Almodovar, is here given the gravest treatment he's yet mustered. But, typically, it is given a setting both recognisable and fantastic. This helps any who approach to concentrate on the carefully constructed emotional maelstrom on screen.

Banderas, who came to the world through Almodovar's powerful but unglamorous roles, continues here with a performance that respects its author's care. He is pitiable and menacing by turns and, somehow, always caring. Beside him is the always wonderful Elena Anaya (see here for notes on the superb Hierro -- scroll down). There's one objection I have to her performance but it necessitates a spoiler but there is one scene, as old as folk tales, where she cannot reveal who she is to loved ones without a cataclysm: her decision grinds behind her  eyes as her love and her pain fight to the death.

I'm on and off with this director. Sometimes his comedies wear (I think I'm the only person who has seen it who finds Women on the Verge a drag). And sometimes his melodramas bore. Mostly I find his great Rabelasian humanity a joy. But now and then, he'll leap from the shadows with something tough and beautiful at once, a new thing. That's what he's got here.

Bugger the new Mission Impossible in IMAX. Go for a thrill for your inner core. Go see this one.

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