I relinquish myself to every adolescent/boyhood urge: the original title of Almodóvar’s new film is La Piel Que Habito. That knowledge would function ordinarily as mere trivia for the pretentious cinema-goer; the type who “keeps it regal” and likes to pronounce all the foreign film titles in their native languages. Inevitably they end up sounding like a caricature of a Mexican. But I can’t halt there because that phallic syllable is gaping out at me. The “piel” I live in. South Africans get a deeper, more multi-layered engagement with that title. The film, actually, is all about the presence and absence of this titular piel. It’s a sci-fi body-horror with the luxurious direction of Spain’s gayest director: it’s melodramatic, lustrous and elegant (as you’d expect). And it’s full of – sometimes oblique, sometimes gruesome – philosophic fodder of his usual themes. There’s the crisis of sexual identity and a sustained thinking through of desire and its complications.
There are a few effed-up films of recent memory still in circulation. The testicle-crushing and clitoris-excision of Antichrist is difficult to argue with. There is, however, something far more eerie about the torture of Skin I Live In: routine, clinical and non-explicit, it’s treated like something with all the regularity and order of the medical profession; it’s sanitised, not sanguinary. It requires impossible circuitous-ness to skirt around the climax of the plot, because this climax is an organising force which makes a series of disturbing and incoherent episodes suddenly make sense. But nevertheless Almodóvar – in this fantastic, phantasmagoric detour – gets a golden medal for producing something so ambiguously fucked-up.
Our chief character here is Antonio Banderas playing a kind of Dr. Frankenstein, with a human experimental subject. He’s not Frankenstein in the madness and inner contradiction, though. Part of this possibly has to do with the fact that Banderas – or more accurately, Zorro – isn’t exactly the most expressive of actors. In fact, his face is like an oil painting; beautiful, but still (suitably, he plays a plastic surgeon here). His wife was in a disfiguring car accident years ago which left her a skinless cinder and he devotes his life feverishly to the pursuit of an artificial skin which would have saved her. Of course, this comes replete with delusion and projection: he has to externalise, symbolically, his absent wife and cure his new projections in order to heal himself of past failure. Early on in the film he develops this burn and insect-resistant skin, but his means of getting there prove rather dark and morbid.
The plot summary above perhaps suggests more of a linear, chronological sanity than this film possesses. In fact, the opening half is almost indecipherably abstract. There’s a young woman incarcerated in a single room of a house. CCTV cameras have her under perpetual watch by an old woman. She gets breakfast delivered to her by a dumb-waiter and is refused the delivery of anything sharp. Instead, wearing an external skin-suit (in which every contour is frankly naked) she occupies herself by scribbling on the walls and exercising through yoga. Banderas has her locked up in an isolated mansion-fortress somewhere near Toledo and has a clear fascination with our woman, both experimental and sexual. A little later on, she’s raped by a man in a lion-suit. Yeah, Almodóvar just keeping it surreal.
Nothing should be revealed beyond the midpoint, when the film dramatically hurtles six years into the past and changes perspective. But the title gives rich suggestion of much of the later plot, and the film begins to open itself up to a performance of anxiety, revenge; it begs for scholarly readings deploying large tracts of feminist theory, and explores the porousness (and instability) of gender borders, while at the same time appearing to affirm much of the crisis of belonging to a particular skin and the rules which govern that belonging.
Perverse and unsettling, this film has that strange duality of a charming horror. Jean-Paul Gauthier contributes his perceptive sartorial sense to a handsome wardrobe of costumes. Alberto Iglesias’s score is lush. Elena Anaya, as “Vera”, the woman in the room (the madwoman in the attic?) is exceptionally striking. And as with all Almodóvar’s films, the setting and camera-work is deeply stylish, but here serves as an artifice, a cover-up operation for all the darkness lurking in its spirit. What Almodóvar has done is take a tenured mad scientist plot and subjected it to his unmistakable sensibilities, producing an interrogative thriller with the power to unsettle.
*In cinemas 20 January 2012.