Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Spain Month: The Skin I Live In

The Skin I Live In 2011 film Pedro Almoldovar poster
It took a long time before I realised this was a drawing.
It's November peepsicles! Those of you who've been about a while know that last year, to celebrate Movemver (a really awesome cause that you should donate to), I spent the month looking at movies from Italy, the land of fabby face fuzz. I've decided to continue the tradition this year, thus officially commencing an annual International Cinema Month, by moving a little West and looking at the produce of another country of moustachioed greats: España!
gladiator 2001 ridley scott russel crowe the spaniard shout screenshot
An accurate representation of all Spaniards, ever.
They may not be as great in number as other countries, but the classic Spanish moustache has become an iconic image for top lip overgrowth worldwide, and for that they get this month dedicated to them. Let's get going then; we're going to start things off with Pedro Almodovar's creepy body horror/thriller/drama, The Skin I Live In.

A quickfire plot outline: Renowned surgeon, Robert Ledgard, has successfully developed a new artifical skin capable of withstanding huge amounts of damage, all from the private lab in his home in the countryside. But in his home he also hides Vera, the mysterious woman who has become his living test subject, kept away from the outside world under lock and key. Both are hiding something about their past, no-one actually has a moustache, and everybody is fucking crazy.

The Skin I Live In 2011 film Pedro Almoldovar screenshot Zeca mother gag tiger
Peeps be major coo-coo.
Where to begin? There's a lot to see and say about The Skin I Live In... I guess where we always usually do start: acting. Critiquing the acting, particularly when in reference to delivery and dialogue, of a foreign film is never a pleasant thing to attempt what with not actually being able to understand the nuances and accents of the native language (try watching any Japanese movie without feeling like the actors are flatly shouting their lines at each other), so I'm often left to getting the best idea I can from the subtler moments in a film. Luckily, The Skin I Live In is full of such incidents of quiet contemplation spattered with unease; a lot of the actual communication in the film is left to stolen glances and clipped dialogue between characters, giving the film this wonderfully smouldering, high-tension atmosphere.

But to be a little more specific, Antonio Banderas. Ugh. That man. I'm used to seeing him in much more flamboyant roles (The Mask of ZorroTake the Lead, Spy Kids), so to have him being all mysterious and dark and brooding like this; giving so little away yet still coming across as such a powerful force to reckon with. Oh, my loins!

The Skin I Live In 2011 film Pedro Almoldovar screenshot antonio banderas robert ledgard lab science screenshot
And he's smart too. Take me, Doctor.
His interactions with Vera (Elena Anaya) are wonderfully erotically menacing (a phrase which pretty much sums up the whole movie) and the two almost single-handedly carry the whole film on their own backs. The supporting cast are memorable (Roberto Alamo as the short-lived Zeca particularly so) but none quite pull their roles off with as much aplomb as the starring couple; which I guess is why they're, you know, the starring couple. That's how this stuff works.

So yeah, we've got Banderas and Anaya riffing off each other to create this great atmosphere brimming with unsaid words and tension. Sexy tension. Tension galvanized by a beautifully uneasy score by Alberto Iglesias, conservative set design, and that splendidly staged, pseudo-clinical cinematography that I adore oh so much.

The Skin I Live In 2011 film Pedro Almoldovar screenshot antonio banderas robert ledgard vera watching screen
There's the money maker. A superbly framed shot of another superbly framed shot.
It all amalgamates into a spectacularly lavish veneer with an unsettling undertone beneath it; surprisingly appropriate for the themes of the film, which focus on identity, betrayal, sexuality and the grey places that lie between all of those things. The "must-keep-secret-twist" plastered on the poster up top there might make you think that you should be waiting till the third act for a big reveal (which there is) to make everything clear for you, but it would be of detriment to the wonderfully crafted arc of the movie to distil it down to such a thing; we're not looking at a Christopher Nolan movie here, things are much more insidious.

Although, if put down on paper, the general plot sounds like a scrapped script for a bad soap opera (family trauma; rape; more family trauma; weird sort-of-rape; gender identity; evil sons; kidnapping; more definitely-rape-this-time rape), Almodovar has somehow managed to take so many heavy themes and shove them into a highly stylised, erotically-charged environment without ending up with a heap of incongruous melodrama. It's amazing the deftness with which he has handled difficult issues that many other films have tried (and possibly failed) to explore and made them palatable yet still relevant; creating a film which feels more like a visual essay than it does a piece of entertainment.

The Skin I Live In 2011 film Pedro Almoldovar screenshot antonio banderas robert ledgard lecture
"Where'd everyone go? There's a free lunch at the end..."
You can even see a rather scathing feminist commentary peeking through if you're so inclined; The Skin I Live In painting a very positive picture of women and a rather...less so one of men. Over the course of the film, we are informed of or subjected to the horrible experiences and injustices felt by the female cast members: rape, mutilation, post-traumatic stress, betrayal, all at the hands of evil, or just plain mad, men. One of the worst offenders, Zeca, is even dressed up as a tiger, for god's sake. He's literally an animal.

The Skin I Live In 2011 film Pedro Almoldovar screenshot zeca tiger costume
Albeit a very gay looking one.
Ledgard, in this context plays quite an asexual role in the film (despite being in a very romantically engaged relationship with Vera); having seen his wife and daughter suffer at the hands of men, he has himself become a victim of them, and yet he still plays to his violent, twisted male tendencies when it comes to an act of revenge. He plays judge, jury and executioner, answering the question of what would happen if a man were forced to experience the pain and injustice and degradation that is often only reserved for women in our society. Imagine a whole movie that preys on men's fears of emasculation and bodily invasion in the same way as Alien, but mixed in with that YouTube video of those two guys going through simulated labour.

I could go on and on about what it all means, because there's so much to talk about. The weird-as-fuck depiction of the parent-child relationship; the way in which Ledgard's actions reflect his desire to regain control of his life and contact with the wife and child he'd lost; the representation of Vera's skin as something that was violated, her most basic of physiological protection torn down and replaced, and yet the experience somehow strengthening her. It's all there and it's all endlessly fascinating!

The Skin I Live In 2011 film Pedro Almoldovar screenshot elena anaya vera skin graft pen
Also, bewbs. Ah shit, I think I just negated all that feminist stuff.
The last thing of note which has already been touched on lightly is the set design. Oosh, it be puuuurdy. Hauntingly so.

The Skin I Live In 2011 film Pedro Almoldovar screenshot elena anaya vera drawing wall pencil
Don't mind me, I'm just arbitrarily extending my post with more pictures of lovely cinematography.
My personal favourite, however, is Ledgard's lab, with glass walls showing rough old stonework behind it. It's such a wonderful visual metaphor for the rest of the film; a manufactured exterior trying in vain to conceal the flaws and truths of the being underneath. Ugh.

The Skin I Live In 2011 film Pedro Almoldovar screenshot antonio banderas robert ledgard home lab
It shall henceforth be known as the Sexy Metaphor Cube.
I don't care if it was intentional or not; that's what I see and that's what I take away from it. Ain't that just the joy of art? And it's most definitely the joy of The Skin I Live In; it's enigmatic approach and level of polish leaves it open to endless interpretation from so many different angles. Experience it for yourself, watch it with friends, discuss.

Moustache Rating

albert einstein tuxedo

The Einstein -
Full-bodied and eye-catching, but hiding something even smarter and deeper than you ever realised underneath.

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