Oct 23, 2011

The Skin I Live In

Except for Volver, a movie I loved, I have not liked an Almodóvar movie in ages. He has become a parody of himself, and since I am not a fan of camp, his excursions into deliberately cheesy melodrama are not for me. The Skin I Live In is yet another contrived pastiche of a filmmaker who is now more concerned about paying homage to and namedropping the sources for his creative inspirations than at telling a compelling human story.
I am not as erudite about film as to list all the movies that this one pays tribute to or borrows from. The most obvious one, Eyes Without a Face, is a masterpiece of horror and it is echoed here in the secluded plastic surgery clinic where Dr. Robert Ledgard (a good Antonio Banderas) experiments to create artificial skin. But far from a horror movie, The Skin I Live In is more vulgar, convoluted, nonsensical and clumsily told than a bad Mexican telenovela. There is nothing remotely mysterious or suspenseful about it, but that is not the point, because the point is to be as campy and kitschy as possible, which, on me at least, has a distancing effect.
The only thing that kept me watching is the gorgeous, sensual cinematography by the great José Luis Alcaine. Visually, the movie is too polished for the crappy acting style and the stilted dialogue, but at least you can marvel at the pristine light and the rich color of almost every frame. The music by Alberto Iglesias is almost exactly identical to his music for Talk to Her, and just as lovely, although one tires of artists ripping themselves off so shamelessly. I also marveled at the amazing makeup worn by Elena Anaya, as Vera, the woman on whom the doctor experiments, and whose skin looks like Estee Lauder's wet dream. These things held my attention while I struggled to stop cringing in my seat.
I cannot abide the humorless Marisa Paredes, an Almodóvar regular, an actress who in Spanish would be called "una pesada", who plays the doctor's assistant and who also turns out to be his mother (big shock). I'm not giving anything away. The vulgar convolutions of the plot hold no mystery or suspense whatsoever. I was rather more shocked to find that in this movie Almodovar completely eschews his light touch in favor of exaggerated, clumsy bathos. I don't expect him to redo Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown or Matador over and over again, but I do miss his fresh, comedic moxie and the days where his staging was lithe and playful. This present work is as light and as palatable as reinforced concrete. He used to be cheeky but never vulgar. Not anymore.
As in Talk To Her, I could care less about his admiration for Louise Bourgeois, or Cayetano Veloso or Pina Bausch. These inclusions of his favorite artists in his movies may be genuine fandom on his part, but they strike me as both pretentious and provincial. 
There is one interesting idea in this movie, which is a theme that Almodóvar has touched upon before, and which is hidden somewhere in the middle, blooming only for a moment before disappearing among the bizarre, meaningless melodrama. There is a sequence, when the doctor, as a sort of Dr. Frankenstein, is turning a man into a woman, who then seems to fall in love with him, that communicates the idea that sexual identity and gender are fluid. That beneath the skin, deep inside, our desires, male or female, are far less distinct than we think. This is a beautiful idea well worth putting in a film, Alas, the rest of the movie is like a botched surgery, with the ugly bolts and stitches visible to the naked eye. The Skin I Live In is a movie of ideas, firmly ensconced solely in the director's self-referential head, which is why, in spite of all of the beautiful color, it feels utterly devoid of life.

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