The Skin I Live in (2011) ☆☆☆(3/4) : A sick doctor and his twisted experiment

 A twisted man and the girl in his captivity have been a constant source of memorably disturbing drama films such as William Wyler’s “The Collector”(1965) and Kim Ki-duk’s “Bad Guy”(2002) in the movie history. “The Skin I Live in”, a new film by Pedro Almodóvar, the master of sensual story with twists and styles, is no exception, but this disturbing tale will definitely make some of you wince because the story turns out to be more uncomfortable than you expected at first. It is a stylish melodrama with twists we expect from Almodóvar, but, the story also has a scary side hidden below the surface(or shall I say the skin?) to make you uneasy.

The set-up is familiar. Dr. Robert Ledgard(Antonio Banderas) is a well-respected plastic surgeon in his field, but, what do you know, he is doing a secret experiment of his own at his big house. In many gothic horror films, it is usually a dark gothic mansion filled with shadows, but his house actually look like a bright, clean modern art gallery where I’d love to spend several weeks if the doctor is absent for a while. Besides his private surgery room in his house where he can do the surgery at any time, he even has an expensive germ-free laboratory; as a Biology graduate, I envy him a lot.

There few people in his house. There are three insignificant employees working in the house, and there is a housekeeper named Marilia(Marisa Paredes), who has been devoted to Robert since when he was young. And there is some young woman named Vera(beautiful Elena Anaya with her spotless skin) who has been locked in one of the upstairs rooms. While wearing the special clothes for her, she has been kept there for a long time, but she does not mind about that. Except being locked up, her prison life is quite comfortable; the room is big, cozy, and clean while functioning as a nice space for her artistic expression.

The doctor has a sinister purpose. Besides watching her in the room through a big flat TV screen in his room, he has been using her as the subject of his insidious experiment. After his wife died due to a horrible car accident, he is determined to do something revolutionary in his field; he wants to develop a new type of artificial skin which can withstand any kind of damages. I have no clear idea about how he does it(it is only briefly mentioned that he used the genes from pig for transforming the skin cells, but I guess Almodóvar has not heard about host versus graft disease), but his experiment is almost near the end anyway, and the result is Vera with new, clean skin.

Now you may wonder – how does she think about being exploited by her captor? She is obedient to the doctor’s orders, even when he burns her skin for his work. She knows that he has been making her more beautiful day by day. She senses that he is obsessed with her as much as his work. It is possible that she can be free by becoming closer to him than before.

This is an Almodóvar film, so you cannot expect this weird Pygmalion story unfolded in a straight way. Their equilibrated situation is soon turned upside down when Zeca(Roberto Álamo), the son of Marillia, comes to the house wearing a tiger suit(I am not kidding – and he has a good reason for that). Several secrets inside the characters are revealed to us(but not always to the characters) one by one along with the more twists behind the situation which is already twisted enough.

Around the middle of the story, you will probably begin to grasp how perverted Richard really is, and how bizarrely Richard and Vera are entangled with each other. Besides the three main characters, there also several important supporting characters in their past, including Richard’s unstable daughter who were eventually sent to the mental institution due to the unfortunate trauma in one evening party, which Richard misguidingly believed was directly caused by a young man named Vincente(Jan Cornet).

The movie is based on Thierry Jonquet’s novel “Tarantula”. I have not read it yet, but, from what I have heard from other critics, the novel is the story ideally twisted enough to be filmed by Almodóvar. Almodóvar decorates his tale with his usual colorful approach as shown in the interior of Richard’s house, which is filled with several nice artworks like those big paintings hung on the walls. The movie is visually compelling even when it is outside the house; I was particularly impressed by a very brief scene where Richard makes a speech in front of his fellow doctors in some old-fashioned library. Even in such a inconsequential scene like that, Almodóvar fills the scene with details to draw my attention, and the score by Alberto Iglesias, one of Almodóvar’s main collaborators, imbues the screen with the unstable feelings.

However, despite its amusing references including “Vertigo”(1958) and other classic films and its stylish approach, the movie does not have much of a sense of tantalizing fun we experienced in Almodóvar’s other films such as his previous work “Broken Embrace”(2009). The movie is playful sometimes, but, after all, it is serious about its disturbing subject and its despicable hero played with a good, intense performance by Antonio Banderas. The story gets lost a little in the second act, and we are left with lots of uneasiness remaining unresolved inside us. As a disturbing medical horror drama that makes you cringe at times, “The Skin I Live in” is the film we easily cannot like, but, though it is not Almodóvar’s best work, it did leave some impression on me.

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1 Response to The Skin I Live in (2011) ☆☆☆(3/4) : A sick doctor and his twisted experiment

  1. S M Rana says:

    a nice chilling example of the genre was silence of the lambs and the novet the collector by john fowles

    SC: I will read John Fowles’ novel someday. I liked its chilling film adaptation.

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