Wednesday 7 December 2016

Review: The Skin I Live In ****

16, LIMITED RELEASE

Paul Whitington

Published 26/08/2011 | 05:00

Like his great hero Luis Buñuel, Pedro Almodóvar is a daring and distinctive auteur whose darkly comic dramas could never be confused with the work of anyone else. In The Skin I Live In, he delves further into Grand Guignol territory than he ever has before and evokes the classic Hollywood horror films of the 30s, Georges Franju's classic Eyes Without a Face, and work of David Cronenberg. Most of all, though, Almodóvar channels his own work, and The Skin I Live In is haunted by echoes of everything from Kika to Matador.

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Antonio Banderas delivered a memorable performance in the latter film, and in this one he's reunited with Almodóvar for the first time in 20 years.

He plays Robert Ledgard, an eminent cosmetic surgeon who announces that he has cultivated a new, replacement skin which is smooth, durable and impervious to heat. He claims he has perfected it by using mice, but it soon becomes clear he has been experimenting on a larger subject. Ledgard has been holding a young woman captive in his secluded Toledo home. Vera (Elena Anaya) lives in a soundproofed room and her only human contact is with the doctor, who treats her with a mixture of tenderness and disdain. Her skin is suspiciously smooth and flawless, and it emerges that Ledgard has been gradually reshaping her in the image of his dead wife.

Vera seems almost complicit in all this, but it emerges that her situation is considerably more complex. In a series of flashbacks, we discover that Ledgard's obsession with skin began when his wife was horrifically disfigured in a car crash, after which a succession of tragedies caused him to all but lose his mind. Vera's place in all this is tangential and almost accidental, but she and Ledgard are now locked in a fatal embrace.

The Skin I Live In is a mad mixture of melodrama, psychosexual tragedy, black comedy and horror film, and only Almodóvar could have (a) dreamt it up in the first place and (b) made it work. I mentioned flashbacks earlier and the film is so audaciously structured that it ought to collapse under the weight of its conflicting pressures. Somehow, it doesn't and, instead, is an utterly absorbing and pleasingly theatrical drama that only loses the run of itself slightly towards the very end.

Banderas is excellent as the deceptively sane-seeming Ledgard, and Anaya is a worthy successor to Penelope Cruz as Almodóvar's muse. Her flawless beauty fills the screen and she excels in a role of exponential nuance and complexity.

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