Review: The Skin I Live In (2011)

It’s pretty much impossible to discuss Pedro Almodóvar’s latest, The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito) without spoiling anything about it. I’m not talking about specific plot points, but about the way the film, as a narrative construct, operates. Since knowing how the film works on a narrative level can and will change the way you approach it, up to making guessing some plot points almost inevitable, I would suggest not reading the following review if you intend to see The Skin I Live In and want to experience it like a first-time viewer (in which case I would also recommend avoiding the film’s trailer, if at all possible, as it is particularly awful and contains major spoilers).

The Skin I Live In is a film that revolves entirely around a central twist. And I mean entirely. We’re talking M. Night Shyamalan’s levels of reliance on a plot device, here. The whole movie is built around that plot twist, with the goal of hiding it for as long as possible, so as to maximize its impact. The problem with such narrative devices, though, is that unless they are handled very carefully by a skilled writer, they can easily become a distraction rather than an effective tool. This is exactly what happens with The Skin I Live In, which ends up being more about its central plot twist itself than about its own story.

The film begins in 2012, in a luxurious mansion on the edge of a Spanish village. It belongs to a certain Doctor Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas, appearing for the first time in an Almodóvar picture in over twenty years), a former plastic surgeon now working on his own research. Also living in the house are Vera (Elena Anaya), a young woman with suicidal tendencies whom Ledgard keeps locked up in a room filled with security cameras, and Marilia (Marisa Paredes), the old maid who takes care of the house and watches over everything. That includes the complex relationship between Ledgard and Vera who, thanks to plastic surgery, has the facial features of Ledgard’s deceased wife, Gal.

Ledgard’s obsession with creating a synthetic skin that would withstand any kind of damage, and in particular fire, is understandable once we learn that his wife died after suffering severe burns in a car crash. His use of Vera as a guinea pig is more objectionable, to say the least. When Ledgard presents the results of his research to the local university (without mentioning anything about any human test subject, of course), he gets shot down for dabbling in illegal genetic engineering. He seems to take it in stride, though, and immediately moves on. Things do get more complicated when Zeca (Roberto Álamo), Marilia’s son, shows up at the mansion after a botched robbery and confuses Vera for the dead Mrs. Ledgard.

If that sounds confusing, it’s because it is. There are what appear to be four or five different plot threads running concurrently through the film’s first part, starting and stopping seemingly at random. The “mad scientist creating a synthetic skin” plotline, heavily implied to be at the film’s core in both the press releases and trailers, is dropped abruptly and never mentioned again; Zeca’s mysterious relationship to Robert and his dead wife seems like it will play a large role, and then it doesn’t. All in all, the film’s first part is a messy, often hard to follow affair. Some of it is deliberate misdirection on Almodóvar’s part, some of it ends up making thematic sense once all is said and done (in a particularly unsubtle example, the bestial Zeca shows up in a tiger costume, driving home the point that this is a movie about human nature and its boundaries). The problem with The Skin I Live In isn’t what it’s about, though, but how it’s about it.

In order for the twist to work, the story has to be told in anachronistic order. Shortly after Zeca’s arrival, we go back in time six years and are shown exactly how we got there. There’s an unconvincing attempt to establish this flashback as a sort of dream Ledgard is having, but it soon becomes obvious that this is an artificial device rather than an organic development. (There’s a painfully awkward moment when, at the end of that segment, Almodóvar inserts a clumsy “Now back to the present” title card, highlighting just how contrived the whole thing is.) The problem is compounded by the fact that the story just isn’t that compelling, especially if you see the twist coming. The fifteen minutes leading up to the reveal are perhaps the worst offender, as they consist in nothing but mechanically getting from point A to point B in the story, and become particularly underwhelming if you’ve figured it out in advance (which, frankly, isn’t that hard to do if you’re at all familiar with Almodóvar’s filmography). The last part of the flashback often feels unnecessary as well; it mostly spells out the logical consequences of the twist, which viewers should be able to figure out by themselves, and even goes so far as to repeat information we already got from the first part.

All that being said, could The Skin That I Live In have been told in a more straightforward manner? It’s unlikely. Almodóvar relies heavily on the surprise factor for impact; take away the anachronistic order and the central twist, and you lose most of that. However, the long middle section arguably serves no other purpose than to make sense of the narrative and thematic content already present in the first part, which is itself such a mess only because Almodóvar decided to tell the story in a non-linear order (catch-22, anyone?). For all those reasons, I suspect The Skin I Live In might play better on second viewing, and particularly on DVD, as it would allow one to focus on the much richer first part without getting lost in the interweaving plot threads. Being able to skip through most of the flashback segment would simply be a bonus.

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