La piel que habito (2011) – The Skin I Live In

Dir:- Pedro Almodóvar

Starr:- Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes

Scr:- Pedro Almodóvar adapted from the novel ‘Mygale’ by Thierry Jonquet

DOP:- José Luis Alcaine

Producer(s):- Agustin Almodóvar, Pedro Almodóvar

About thirty minutes in to Almodóvar’s latest film I was ready to do that most dreaded of things for a cinephile, I was ready to turn the thing off. Yet Almodóvar, being the expert tease that he is, had planted just enough in those languorous opening sequences to keep my finger off of the stop button. The genius of the films slow start only becomes apparent once you make it through to the final third. The seeds are planted in those opening moments, but they come to fruition towards the end of the film, resulting in one of the most satisfying cinematic climaxes (this is Almodóvar afterall) of the year. Much like Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the film operates in and around obsession and manages to foreground a seduction of the audience, by offering up just enough information to make the question as to who this mysterious woman called Vera is of primary importance to the narrative – whilst being very far from the crux of the narrative. I don’t doubt there will be those who do not embrace the absurdities of La piel que habito’s plotting, but isn’t the absurd, or at least the superficially so, exactly where Almodóvar’s best works are always positioned?

La piel que habito is based upon a hardcore French crime novel, by the late Thierry Jonquet, called Mygale (or Tarantula in its English-language Serpent’s Tail publication). Like Carne Trémula before it, the film is a loose adaptation of the source material, keeping the broad outline of the plot in place, but carefully adjusting elements to allow for Almodóvar’s eccentric vision to come to the fore. Robert Ledgard (Banderas) is an eminent surgeon, who has participated in various successful face transplantations and has recently developed a new form of laboratory grown skin that is more durable than natural skin. He lives within a gated villa complex that also houses his clinic. Marilla (Paredes) is his housekeeper, who spends most of her time looking after the needs of a woman called Vera (Anaya), who appears to be one of Ledgard’s patients and has clearly suffered some kind of serious trauma. One of the key plot elements in the novel revolves around the character of Zeca, a criminal on the lam who kidnaps Vera to blackmail Ledgard into giving him reconstructive facial surgery.  Almodóvar incorporates Zeca in a deranged blackly comic sequence, but ditches most of this part of the novel’s plotting in favour of exploring a much more twisted aspect of vengeance.

As ever when in thriller mode, Almodóvar falls back on his love of Hitchcock and in this instance Vertigo is the film that is obliquely providing a thematic template. The key to Vertigo’s power was Hitchcock’s absolute understanding of obsession and how it relates to control. There has rarely been anything quite as frightening in cinema as Stewart’s countenance when he remakes Novak in the image of the woman he had loved and lost, and who has continued to haunt him ever since. In that intense hotel sequence Hitchcock’s own obsessions are allowed to run amok, as he channels colour, lighting and score into powerfully serving this moment of explicit control-freakery – the director’s direction laid bare. In La piel que habito Almodóvar takes things a step further. Unlike in Vertigo Ledgard’s obsessive actions are not fuelled by what is in plain sight. Ledgard is not returning someone to the state in which he remembered and loved them – a disturbing element of Vertigo is how Stewart’s obsession is controlled by Tom Helmore’s stage managing of the Madeleine character – instead he is remaking a love out of the compacted fury of vengeance.

Look into my eyes… look into my eyes.

Banderas is scintillating throughout La piel que habito; a laconic, voyeuristic presence, very much in keeping with Eastwood’s vengeful strangers of the 60s and 70s, only with the addition of sexual charm and perversity. It is regrettable that a man so obviously talented at portraying the perverse has been so criminally underused, or ill-served, in his English-language film career. Back in Almodóvar’s fold, Banderas exudes a suffocating degree of arrogance, alongside a carefully suppressed rage, that makes his portrayal of surgeon, husband and father satisfyingly subtle and textured, with a particularly dangerous malignancy in and around the eyes (a vital image motif throughout the film). There is a haughty entitlement at work in Ledgard, which is to some degree explained by Marilla’s mid-film revelations. Banderas’s role could have so easily been that of another Frankenstein, or Vincent Price-inspired mad doctor, yet instead he comes across as multi-faceted and driven by an unyielding desire to control and dominate. Ledgard has been wronged in his life, but there is a real sense that the degree of hurt he has been exposed to is magnified by his capacity for cruelty and torment. Furthermore, he has the surgeon/scientist’s propensity to seek out new challenges against which his excellence can be tested. In many ways Vera is not only an expression of Ledgard’s capacity for hatred and love, but also a living, breathing example of his skills as a surgeon and artist.

Throughout the film Almodóvar overloads his scenes, sets and costumes. The sheer amount of artwork in Ledgard’s coolly stylised house is at first distracting, without necessarily being comprehensible. Vera’s body suit and preference for yoga are flagrantly thrust in the viewers face, yet resolutely refuse to yield up any deeper significance until much later in the film. The absurdities of Zeca’s tiger outfit and the disguise that Ledgard wears at a crucial stage in the movie, are utterly OTT, but this extravagance helps to mask Almodóvar’s more intriguing thematic concerns until they coalesce in the films closing sequences. The final horrors of the movie are straight out of Franju and Fowles and yet Almodóvar makes a moment of transcendent virtue out of them, once more involving his beloved trinity of women, in which so much subtextual gender issues can be read. Vera is a creation of obsession and revenge. She is someone made to look like a perfect simulacrum of someone else. Her body is manipulated and reconstructed in much the same way as we later see Ledgard applying the controlled restraints to a bonsai tree. In Vera we have the surgeon’s attempts at perfection allied to a intense desire for retribution. Vera’s body becomes at once an alien site, a site of exotic recalibration, the body as malleable source material and the location of an atrocity. Ledgard recreates the wife he lost, whilst punishing her and the perceived tormentor of his daughter, and thus simultaneously melding together love and hate seamlessly. Never has a film found an image as powerful as Anaya’s adaptation to her new skin, for disinterring the twisted psychology of a central character.

I’ve always found dissection goes easiest when the head isn’t there to distract one.

Anaya’s performance is also a powerful and robust one. Initially her role is inscrutable, nearly silent and filtered through the lens within a lens of Ledgard’s CCTV setup. I’m unaware of any other cinematic character that has been so cryptically presented to an audience. For much of the opening sections of the movie Anaya is seen performing various yoga stretches in her body suit, whilst reading Alice Munro and working on some Louise Bourgeois mimicking sculptures. Almodóvar’s camera roves over her lycra-clad body, cleaving into the space between her thighs, describing the curvature of her buttocks, mapping out the femininity of her hips, stomach, chest and breasts. Anaya’s eyes are a repeat motif in the film, as their caramel brown colouring are a direct link with the hidden character of Vicente. Later, as Vera’s true nature is revealed, it is the eyes that once again haunt the imagination, with those wide-eyed appeals to the CCTV camera lens appearing more like a challenge. Anaya’s performance, although not quite the equal of Banderas’s still manages to fascinate. In the midsection of the film her physicality is palpably masculine and the gradual growth into her new skin, feels well thought out and realised.

Almodóvar’s film may be retreading familiar ground in terms of his love of Hitchcock and his use of intriguing crime-thriller material, but there is a sense, as with Hitchcock in Vertigo and Marnie, that he is engaging in a more dangerous, direct and immediate apprehension of psychological fixation and obsession. There is also the omnipresent cheekiness of Almodóvar’s rather madcap humour, which helps to avoid or regulate any overt passages of sentimentality or fetishism. That said La piel que habito feels like a film that is thoroughly uninhibited by any degree of restraint on the part of the director, which goes so thoroughly against the controlled crafting of its narrative. Director and lead actor are engaged in a deadly dance, focused around their mutual appreciation of the depths of obsessive behaviour. It’s a hard movie to warm to at first, but once it gets past the deliberate vagaries of the present, it becomes a seething cauldron of explicit and implicit desires, played out against the maniacal psychology of Banderas’s Ledgard.

Pros

  • Banderas turns in one of his career best performances in the lead role, reminding all of what an neglected talent he is.
  • The accretion of visual details throughout the movie makes it a film that demands and rewards repeat viewings.
  • It goes into terrain that only Almodóvar could go into without the film devolving into the shambolic mess of something like The Human Centipede.

Cons

  • It’s  Almodóvar directing (a cinematic brand identity if ever there was one) and this immediately places an undue degree of expectation on proceedings that the film, initially, struggles to contend with.
  • Almodóvar’s lengthy and prolific career means that he is almost certainly going to fall into certain clichéd ways of storytelling, and their are undoubtedly elements of the film that feel refried.
  • The plotting requires an imaginative leap from the audience, but then isn’t that what the best cinema demands.

Rating:- 7.5/10