The Skin I Live In
Starring: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes
Director: Pedro Almodovar
Category: III (Spanish)
Towards the end of The Skin I Live In, one of the film's main characters speaks about the essence of survival in circumstances that demand individuals to adapt and change. The key, he says, lies in sustaining 'a place inside you that you can take refuge, a place that no one else can destroy or have access to' - a moral of sorts, perhaps, of a film revolving around a plastic surgeon's near-pathological obsession with physical transformation through an artificial skin he has invented.
The remark, however, could also be taken as Pedro Almodovar's own proclamation about his art, with his latest film revisiting some of the themes he has frequented in his 31-year career.
Once one of the most exciting and controversial filmmakers around, the 62-year-old's reputation has been dented by a handful of comparatively underwhelming films in recent years.
What unites these failures is his inability to graft his larger philosophical concerns with a gripping narrative driven by convincing, empathetic characters (which he did produce with Talk to Her in 2002 and Volver in 2006).
In The Skin I Live In, however, Almodovar has managed to combine a decent (albeit strange) story with the issues that have fascinated him throughout his creative life. Perhaps it's due to The Skin I Live In being an adaptation of French crime novelist Thierry Jonquet's Tarantula.
Still, Almodovar has refashioned the whole premise to his liking, with the film emerging as a mix of melodrama, pulp thriller and transgressive/transsexual comedy drawn from frisson-heavy liaisons between fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, or captor and captive.
It's the last of these that is central to Skin, as the ravishing young woman Vera Cruz (Elena Anaya) is seen living under lock and key in the remote residence of the plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas, above with Anaya), who elects to observe her from the next room, through a surveillance camera, on a gigantic television screen.
Dressed in a flesh-coloured, full-body pressure suit, Vera, as it turns out, is Robert's creation; it's through a lengthy flashback that the origins of Vera and Robert's ill-conceived and equally ill-fated relationship is laid out, when an act of revenge somehow leads to love, sex and death.
And it's about rebirth, too: in a film where the primary location is called El Cigarral - a Spanish word deriving from the cicada - characters are frequently seen putting on and then shedding things. There's Robert wearing and then removing his surgical gloves; Vera ripping her clothes and refashioning the garments into small sculptures; Robert's housekeeper Marilia (Marisa Paredes) putting on the apron that makes her nostalgic; and Robert's daughter Norma (Blanca Suarez) complaining that her clothes make her feel 'claustrophobic'.
And, of course, there's the crucial device that underpins the whole story: face transplants that provide what Robert describes as 'the most moving experiences in my life'. The Skin I Live In is too contrived to tear at the heartstrings, but at least it's a visually scintillating concoction with a lot to offer beneath its glossy surface.
The Skin I Live In opens today