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Melodrama, Spanish Cinema

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

Antonio Banderas and Elena Anaya in 'The Skin I Live In'

As European auteurs go, Pedro Almodóvar is arguably now the master and perhaps the only consistent performer over a long period. Ever since his 1988 film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown introduced his work to an English-speaking audience, Almodóvar has produced a non-stop stream of controversial and increasingly well-made titles. At first the new titles in the 1990s ran alongside the earlier films (getting their delayed UK/Us release) with their wild plots and equally wild presentations. The more recent films have tended to turn back towards the plot ideas of the earlier films but to present them in extremely controlled productions full of exquisite design ideas – the list of brand names at the end of this latest film is longer than the cast list.

It’s relatively rare for Almodóvar to turn to a previously published property as the basis for his narrative but here he takes a novel by a French television writer Thierry Jonquet. The original novel seems to have had a complex story which Almodóvar filleted and then reconstructed as something recognisable but quite different. The still complex plot has stimulated quite a lot of discussion about who did what to whom and for what reason, but it seems to me that the machinations of the plot are the least interesting aspect of the film. Although I was engaged throughout I wasn’t really interested in the plot which for me didn’t particularly work as a thriller or an emotional melodrama. Instead the plot simply provided a narrative framework on which to hang a set of discourses about gender, genre and the work of several great filmmakers who Almodóvar admires.  The central discourse is the mark of the auteur – a reflection by Almodóvar on his own career.

There are plenty of sites out there discussing various plot spoilers. I’d ignore them and instead read the Press Pack in which Almodóvar gives his typical statement about what lay behind his decision to make the film. (Download from this page.) I don’t really want to promote auteurism as a way of approaching films but with Almodóvar I don’t really think there is any other option. As I watched The Skin I Live In, one part of my brain was struggling to understand what I was seeing and another part was reflecting on my memories of the rest of the director’s work. The third part, concerned about what the narrative might mean in terms of contextual issues was lagging some way behind. (Though it does seem to me that Spanish films – and Almodóvar’s in particular, do seem to explore medical scenarios rather more often than might be expected.)

A young Banderas with Victoria Abril playing the woman he has kidnapped in 'Atame!'.

Let’s begin with one of the two central characters, Robert (why the English name?) Legard played by Antonio Banderas. This is Banderas’ first appearance for Almodóvar since he went to Hollywood a couple of years after starring, with Victoria Abril, in Átame! (Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down!) in 1990. There are elements of that film referenced in The Skin I Live In but now Banderas is the older figure. In his youth he appeared in several roles in which his sexual orientation was sometimes in doubt. Opposite him is Elena Anaya, a beautiful younger actress previously in smaller roles for Almodóvar and making up the central three is Marisa Paredes, another Almodóvar regular. In one of her earlier roles she plays a famous singer who returns to Spain from a long stint in Argentina and her daughter (played by Victoria Abril) takes her to a club where she is being impersonated by a drag queen. This is Tacones lejanos (High Heels, 1991), which offers several interesting family relationships and again seems to inform the new film in some way. Take the two older films together and we can see a discourse not only about gender difference but specifically about body modification, men controlling and restraining women and characters/stars ‘performing’ different roles.

Plots and genres

This is one of those Hitchcockian plots with twists that shouldn’t really be revealed, so I’ll stick with simply explaining the set-up. Vera (Elena Nayana) appears to be held prisoner in a tastefully-designed room. She is dressed in a ‘nude’ body stocking and doesn’t look particularly distressed as she performs yoga exercises. She receives her meals via a dumb-waiter sent up from the kitchen below by Marilia (Marisa Paredes). A title sets up the next location as ‘Toledo, 2012’ – the slightly futuristic setting suggesting a ‘speculative fiction’ of some kind. Banderas/Ledgard is addressing an academic audience on the topic of ‘artificial skin’ and the possibilities of genetic modification. Ledgard has a private operating theatre and research lab so the possibility here is that the narrative will develop in the direction of horror/science fiction. We seem to be in some form of ‘wealthy scientist with a dubious research goal’ territory. But this is an Almodóvar film and melodrama can only be a sumptously designed step away. If Vera is the laboratory subject (‘Vera’ is a name derived from the Latin ‘veritas’ – ‘truth’), Marilia is the scientist’s faithful servant, but we don’t expect Marisa Paredes to have a minor role and indeed she doesn’t. She is the link to the melodrama.

Dana Andrews in Fritz Lang's 'While the City Sleeps' (1956)

My feeling about what follows is that it is meticulously confected, both in its presentation of the melodrama through performances and mise en scène (and with a wonderful score by Alberto Inglesias) and in the twists and turns of the thriller narrative that melds horror and science fiction. I enjoyed seeing Antonio Banderas in a performance in which at times he strongly resembled Dana Andrews, the Hollywood star who appeared in Fritz Lang’s last two Hollywood films and who might be seen as representing the disturbed male characters of film noir. This isn’t too surprising since Almodóvar tells us that :

“A story of these characteristics made me think of Luis Buñuel, Alfred Hitchcock, all of Fritz Lang’s films (from the gothic to the noir). I also thought of the pop aesthetic of Hammer horror, or the more psychedelic, kitsch style of the Italian giallo (Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Umberto Lenzi or Lucio Fulci . . . ) and of course the lyricism of Georges Franju in Eyes Without a Face.” (From the Press Notes)

Georges Franju on the set of 'Eyes Without a Face'

In the event, Almodóvar found himself trying to distil the essence of these influences without allowing the film to become a pastiche of any specific style. The result is a narrative so controlled that on a first viewing seems to me to have been drained of emotion with a resolution that is revealed too quickly. I suspect that many audiences are going to feel dissatisfied. Yet, there is so much going on in the mise en scène (especially in the large-scale reproductions of paintings that I thought I recognised, but the credits suggested not). There also seemed to be large holes in the complicated plot. The Skin I Live In is most definitely a melodrama in terms of its complex interrelationships of coincidence and its excessive use of colour, music and performance, but its cold and, yes, ‘clinical’ tone demands that we think carefully about the meanings that it produces. So, a beautifully executed exercise in filmmaking from a master – but not on first viewing a satisfying entertainment? What does everyone else think?

The ‘teaser’ trailer that doesn’t give too much away:

Discussion

5 thoughts on “The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito, Spain 2011)

  1. I think – like the ‘old masters’ adorning the walls of this complex character, Robert (Banderas), and exactly as you said, Roy – this is a film that will repay serious and regular contemplation. And I think those paintings apparent familiarity is important – they appear immediately recognisable as masterpieces, and then you are not so sure it was what you thought. Something applicable to Almodovar himself maybe – in the way we approach him as an established European auteur and then he delivers a work that’s more subversive than its surface (compared to the more overtly shocking or parodic styles in his past). It’s completely absorbing – not with narrative drive (as you say) but I felt all of us in the cinema actively ‘watching’ those characters, fascinated by them and the interplay – on tenterhooks. Of course, just like the ‘old master’ Hitchcock himself, the film makes the act of looking a very self-conscious one – but in this film, the truth behind appearances (no plot spoilers imminent) is hidden but is not destroyed. Such a powerful assertion at the end and had everything in common with Almodovar’s exploration of identities in his much earlier films.

    Banderas and Anaya played the intensity in a mise-en-scene that emphasised it as it was so architecturally formal. I enjoyed reflecting on how Almodovar uses these roles to deceive the audience. This is partly because we might expect the narrative to take a certain turns in line with certain kinds of mythical of classic stories – stories that have very particular, embedded gender roles within them. It might be an adaptation – but in a week when the latest classic literary adaptation is pending release in the U.K. (Jane Eyre which looks to be done along very traditional lines) this film delivers something so new, even with its recognisable influences. I, too, loved the Iglesias score – nicely Herrmann-esque at points. Banderas apparently told Almodovar on set that they need break loose and do an all-out comedy before they get too old. I want to agree because I’m not sure where else he could go to after this, with this kind of aesthetic – it’s tempting to want to see this hanging beautifully on its own.

    Posted by Rona | September 1, 2011, 17:43
    • I think we are as one on this.

      I’ve just checked the box office for the opening weekend in the UK and I was surprised that Pathe (via 20th Century Fox) had put it out on 125 screens. This must be an effect of the switch to digital for most specialised screens. The norm over the last few years has tended to be more like 80 screens for a subtitled film which is clearly arthouse fare (mainstream orientated fare with subtitles has, I suspect, had wider distribution). In the UK, The Skin I Live In has done OK – $530,000 with an average of over $4,000 for a No. 11 slot. Of course, this is puny compared to the French release on 281 prints for an average of $4,900 and a No.5 slot. It opened a week earlier in France and after 12 days it has grossed nearly $3 million and is on 350 screens. Read and weep!

      Posted by Roy Stafford | September 2, 2011, 13:08
  2. Pretty good, though not Alomodovar’s best, I think.
    Definitely about cinema. I particular thought of Luis Buñuel’s Tristana and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
    Re the painting, I assume the comments are about the version of The Naked Maja? It looked to me like a variation on Manet, however, as you say, I was uncertain.
    One point to make about the film is the critical response. I think Almodovar’s take on sexuality often confuses them. I hope it is not a great plot spoiler to note that there are at least two sexual assaults in the film. Of one of these the S & S plot synopsis commented, ‘semi-rape’! I wonder what the reviewer or/and the editor think that is supposed to mean?

    Posted by keith1942 | September 2, 2011, 14:14
  3. Hi, could someone help me, I have been trying to find the name of the artist who painted the yellow and pink paintings in the first couple of scenes… If anyone can help it be appreciated!
    Sofia

    Posted by sofia ghio | August 19, 2012, 17:30

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