The Skin I Live In certainly puts the ! in ALMODOVAR! The Spanish auteur’s latest film is particularly melodramatic, bizarre, and visually sumptuous, even by his already heightened standards. It establishes one demented version of reality in the first half, and then sucker punches the audience with a twist that makes everything that came before seem tame by comparison. Whether it’s to a completely satisfying end is harder to say. However, as a body horror flick that evokes everything from The Fly, Oldboy and our old friend The Human Centipede, whilst still remaining purely Pedro, it’s a nifty achievement.
Almodovar’s old collaborator Antonio Banderas stars as plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard, who has grown obsessed with developing flame-retardant skin since the unfortunate incineration of his wife years earlier. Trapped in his estate is prisoner Vera (Elena Anaya), who Robert has been experimenting on and creepily morphing into his late partner’s clone. When Robert’s housekeeper/ secret mother(!) Marilla (Marisa Paredes) offers sanctuary to her criminal son/Robert’s secret brother (!) Zeca (Roberto Alamo), it seems as if the picture is about to take a dark (well, even darker) turn. However, Zeca’s violent invasion of the Ledgard home actually brings Robert and Vera closer together. Once they finally engage in a lover’s embrace, we’re treated to their origin story. And everything you thought you knew about these characters changes.
The picture is based on Thierry Jonquet’s novel Tarantula. But what’s it all about, Almie? Is this a tale about the way in which our personalities and sexualities can’t be changed regardless of the extent upon which our facade is altered? Does it seek to challenge the heteronormal ideas of man and woman, or husband and wife? Is it a satire about scientific evolution, commenting on how less human we become as we learn more about our body’s makeup? Or is Almodovar just having the same fun he always has – working with a slightly more grotesque palette than usual – and escalating classic telenovela tropes to 150% and taking them to their (un)natural conclusion? The answer is likely a genetic-mutation of the above.
Unfortunately, In his efforts to simultaneously entrance and disturb the audience, Almodovar is unable to stick the landing in a fulfilling way. The ending is somewhat anti-climactic; it’s as if he isn’t willing to go to the extreme lengths of other horror movies to give us a real gut-busting finale. However, the rest of the film is so deliriously strange, and more than occasionally affecting, that the sudden ending is easily forgivable.
The Skin I Live In arrives in Australian cinemas December 26, 2011.