Catherine Reviews Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In [Theatrical Review]

Pedro Almodóvar made a horror film? Oh the possibilities! Well, apparently not. The Skin I Live In feels like any other Almodóvar film, which is always a great thing, but in this case is also a bad thing, and it culminates as a missed opportunity. You can expect all the delicious goodies that one of his outings has to offer; a film entirely dependent on melodrama complete with plot twists, interweaving storylines, time jumps, stylish pop-infused décor, lustful sexual exploits and themes of obsession, desire, fate and identity. It is all there in spades. This work may be able to shed the absolutely inconsequential Broken Embraces, but it does not quite qualify as top-tier Almodóvar by any means.

I fully admit I may just hold the director up to the impossible standards that he has set for himself. That he accomplished one of the great directorial streaks in film history with All About My Mother, Talk to Her, Bad Education and Volver can account for that. Hell, I would even throw 1997’s Live Flesh into that streak, his most underrated output. The Skin I Live In as a largely missed opportunity, where the groundwork for a great film lays (and certainly pops up from time to time within the finished product), but it never reaches that level of success we come to expect from him.

A review for this is nearly impossible without going into spoilers, and indeed an insightful dive into the inner workings of the picture will be largely avoided in reviews marking its theatrical release (including mine). When enough time passes to be able to really get into the thick of it, the meaningful analysis of the film will really come into play. For now, reviews can only be vague. This will sound like a largely negative review when it is not meant to be. This is because what I loved about the film almost entirely involves a reveal that radically alters audience perspective. I will not be divulging it here, but it is the resulting thematic implications that make up my admiration.

The basic plot involves an innovative plastic surgeon (Antonio Banderas) who has a kept woman (Elena Cruz) in his house against her will. The audience enters this situation in media res, of what looks like a dynamic that is years into its existence. The film starts out vague and eventually falls into a flashback which explains the circumstances of the why, when and how it all came to be.

A big reason the unmentioned reveal works, despite being able to figure it out before its disclosure, is because it lends some much needed layers to the proceedings. The first third is meant litter the audience with questions; to hook us into wanting to know what is going on, and how this situation that has clearly been normalized by the characters, came to be. That element of intrigue never grows organically out of these scenes and they misuse critical time that could have been spent truly grabbing the audience and establishing meaningful characterization. With that, the film gets off to a rickety start.

An example of a scene that does not do what it could is a set-piece that takes place about half an hour in. Marisa Paredes plays a shady matriarchal figure (in what could have been a much juicier role for one of the filmmaker’s great regulars) whose son Zeca (Roberto Alamo) pays her an unexpected visit. Without giving anything away, the way this scene plays out should have slowly ratcheted suspense before giving way to the set-up’s conclusion. It could have had the audience on the edge of their seats akin to the opening scene in Inglourious Basterds (not to insist that the set-piece should have been exactly like that, but it provides an example of a situation that slowly reveals itself simultaneously to the audience and characters and finds suspense through that alliance). Instead, the scene, while interesting, just sort of plays out without reaching that sense of suspense that it clearly means to have.

Another major factor of disappointment is the way it essentially wastes former male muse Antonio Banderas. Granted, to see him back in action with the Spanish director that helped catapult his career back in the day is an unbridled joy. Banderas was always usually given darker characters to play in their collaborations and this case is no different. The actor does a wonderful job with what he is given to work with, but unfortunately it is not much. His character somehow gets lost amidst everything and we never get a sense of him. His actions suggest some potentially incredible characterization but the filmmaker never goes there. Banderas’ more than capable star presence is depended upon too much to carry his character through.

If only Pedro Almodóvar had stepped outside of his comfort zone a bit. His aesthetic will always be a feast for the eyes and will more than carry its weight in worth and skill. But there is a twinge of sadness that he did not branch out even slightly within the horror territory. In fact, The Skin I Live In hardly even feels like a horror film. For some this will be a great thing, showcasing how he can make any kind of material his own. That is fine, and without having hoped for something too dissimilar, I still was optimistic for a fusion between melodrama and horror that does not exist here.

There is a lot to admire here, and even a disappointing film by this director ismore than worth seeing. Elena Anaya as Vera Cruz give a smashing performance in a really difficult part as she emotes through her self-consciously porcelain beauty. The sharp use of strings in Albert Iglesias’ score is perfection and perfectly in tone with the film. He uses a different sound that evokes ‘Twin Peaks’ during a fabulous scene featuring windy back roads (this is the music used in the trailers). The way Almodóvar uses nudity and sexual assault are unprecedentedly remarkable. It is thematically rich and on that level has a lot going on and does not disappoint. It is sprinkled with greatness throughout despite missing the mark as a whole.

In many ways, it demands one sees it twice. A film should be able to carry its weighty impact on a first viewing, but it almost feels like there cannot be a true assessment on general thoughts without seeing it again. In fact, it is probable that the film would mean more if one knows what is going on and I fully acknowledge that.

Despite its misgivings, the film holds throughout, goes to some pretty fantastically implicit territory and features the filmmakers’ reliable skill level. A lot of expectation comes with a Pedro Almodóvar film and he falls short here of creating a great work, though inklings of it can be seen. Ultimately The Skin I Live In feels somewhat hollow; too obsessed with surface beauty to get under the skin of the title, and into the meat of things.

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