The Skin I Live In is an immensely bold and engaging film of perfect gray. “Gray” in the sense that it’s certainly not white, or light, and yet, not black, either. At the core is a redemptive love, but the path that leads to that love is, if one steps back, wholly repugnant. That director Pedro Almodovar (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Talk to Her) is able to show us the chain of events in a plausible, sympathetic, and, not the least of which, compelling way, is a height of craft and human understanding.
If that description seems vague, it should be, because the film’s greatest strength is drawing you in with unexplained details only made clear after the events have transpired. An example: Early on we see a lab, with blood samples, high-tech equipment, and then bees.
Wait, what the hell are those doing here? And then beetles. Why are they there? To provide a tinge of intrigue, of course. The shots are quick, and the explanation comes seconds later, but it’s a moment that represents the whole of Almodovar’s approach. Of course, others like it range from just as casual to much, much more elaborate.
The technique provides an air of mystery, as you know almost nothing of the situations, characters, and their relationships to each other—and makes the scenes all the more watchable. Granted I was worried early on that this heavy use of surprise, while superb on initial viewing, may diminish with repeat viewings, but after the second half, that fear subsided. Without saying too much, the first half is setup for what to expect later on, when what may be viewed as a gimmicky style takes on deeper meaning.
Again, I wish I could, but I can’t discuss the later depth as the film becomes a fascinating character study. Though I will say, regarding the whole: Take heed, young screenwriters, it’s excellent writing that makes a scene compelling with no back story or context. And it’s why I’m going to eschew summarization.
All I’ll say is that Antonio Banderas plays the brilliant, fabulously wealthy, and morally empty surgeon/researcher Robert, obsessed with perfecting skin grafts for burn victims. He lives with the stunning Vera (Elena Anaya). Banderas’s performance I never expected. Maybe I haven’t seen enough of his films, but I never took him to be such a master of body language. His gaze is so cold and vicious that I wonder if he were ever in talks to play the Spanish equivalent of James Bond in what could have been The Dark Knight of Bond films. Maybe that reads like a disservice, because this is deadly more serious, but Banderas perfects the look that made Sean Connery (and Michael Caine, for that matter) a star.
Anaya evokes a sad tenderness of forced naivete, maybe even ignorance, that gradually develops into an audience surrogate. My colleague Andrew James over at RowThree.com, in his very good review, mentioned Anaya’s similarity to Natalie Portman, and I agree, both in looks and talent.
I haven’t seen any of Almodovar’s other films, so I can’t talk much about his style or similar themes, but I will very soon. I haven’t even mentioned the look, which I’m usually hesitant to do so, as my background is in writing, not cinematography. But this looks gorgeous, from the sepia-dashed shots of elegant parties to the dank blues of a dungeon to the sterile whites of a hospital. They don’t call attention to themselves (though a few Dutch angles I feel do) so much as make you feel there. As it should be, they’re the seasoning, not the meat.
This is pure cinema in its blend of audience manipulation and honesty. Some may think from that sentence (and perhaps this review) that The Skin I Live In sounds like a pretentious art film, but it is precisely the opposite, showing nothing but respect for the viewer by asking them to pay attention, as it will certainly pay off. If anything, it should be used to show how experiments in the art of film must be done.
Finally, the only criticism I have is of the ending, as the film has, stylistically, already ended before the actual last scene. It feels tacked, but I suppose it was necessary. It’s not dishonest, just superfluous. Saying the film is not skin deep would be a similarly unneeded detail.