By Danielle Richardson
Pedro Almodovar, the infamous Spanish director responsible for European cinema classics such as All About My Mother (1999) and Volver (2006), is known for making films that cause a stir. From project to project he brazenly tackles topics of sexuality and gender and examines how each can shifted and blurred. He’s also quite keen on the issues of promiscuity, and the objectification of the body. He is very open about these issues and often uses dark humour, to draw much needed attention to traditionally ignored taboos. The Skin I Live In (2011) is no different and even its title starts the audience thinking about the separation between the body and the mind.
Using a non-linear narrative structure, the film tells the story of Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), a successful plastic surgeon who is pioneering face transplants for burns victims. At his private clinic we see him experimenting with a new form of skin he has managed to construct and use on his live-in patient: the beautiful Vera (Elena Anaya). It becomes apparent though, that beneath surface, beyond Robert’s gated house where he drives his immaculate white BMW every day, beneath Vera’s flawless beauty and translucent skin is a dark tangle of secrets, obsession and madness.
We are given clues in Vera’s edgy behavior: her shredded dresses,and her constant surveillance that something is amiss, but it is only when Robert’s bubble is violently infiltrated by a terrifying man in a bizarre tiger costume that the secrets of Robert’s past begin to be revealed, both for Vera and the audience.
There is a repeated use of uncomfortably close-up shots in this film which feel as invasive as the procedures Vera regularly has to endure. The disregard for privacy for the body is shown through frequent nudity from Vera herself and the many paintings of naked women littering the walls around Robert’s house. There are also several violent, sickening sex scenes, all of which occur under a general veil of surreality.
What really makes this film so wonderfully engaging however is the understated, sinister characterisation by Banderas, who, despite his inexcusable actions still manages to provoke sympathy and the clever structural switches between the past and present. Not only do the recurrent memories of the past illustrate how Robert is constantly plagued by them but they slowly throw the audience tiny tidbits of information in such a way that when the past and present are finally linked together, you are able to work out a truly frightening plot twist that you will spend the remaining minutes hoping it’s not true.
A beautifully executed movie with some top class casting that leaves you wondering exactly what really identity means and a story that you will not be able to stop thinking about for days afterwards.