Monday 29 August 2011

"The Skin I Live In": an exfoliation

The young Pedro Almodóvar was fascinated by the human body, as enfants terribles (even those of the Spanish variety) often are, and by its many and varied forms: early works like Pepi, Luci, Bom, Matador and Law of Desire crackled with the threat of erotic violence. Round about the point the director was anointed as an elder statesman of the European cinema in the late 1990s, he began dressing this interest up in ever more elegant fashions, perhaps most prominently in the replacement of his sometime spitfire muse Victoria Abril, variously abused and exposed in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, High Heels and Kika, with the altogether more demure and fetching L'Oreal spokeswoman Penelope Cruz in a run of films starting with 1999's All About My Mother and continuing through to 2009's Broken Embraces. With The Skin I Live In, a sinewy example of body horror, Almodóvar attempts to graft the style of New Pedro onto some of the themes and concerns of the Pedro of old: it didn't really take for me, and the results start to look as artificial and as absurd as, well, Jocelyn Wildenstein.

The set-up is pure pelicula-B: Antonio Banderas plays a transplant surgeon who, ever since his wife's death in a fire, has been working on the creation of a synthetic human flesh immune to heat, infection and insect bites. His test study is the winkingly named Vera Cruz (Elena Anaya), whom the doctor has kept prisoner in a flesh-toned bodysuit in a locked room in his fortress-like home on the outskirts of Toledo. From the manner in which the surgeon carefully cuts and tacks down this new skin on one of his dummies, we begin to see how Almodóvar is hellbent on transforming Mad Science into a form of haute couture. The impeccably groomed and tailored Banderas has as much Tom Ford in his DNA as he does Viktor Frankenstein, and Anaya's Vera, being made over into the image of the surgeon's late wife, has evidently become his latest muse.

Where the Pedro of yore used to slice and dice the human form, and expect us to laugh at this frantic iconoclasm, now he subjects it to bespoke tailoring, and encourages us to coo and swoon at the textures created. Along with the elder statesman tag, Almodóvar has inherited that Godardian tic of accessorising his sets with paintings, sculptures and books - a Louise Bourgeois here, a Cormac McCarthy there - so as to show what he's been looking at or reading of late, inadvertently turning certain scenes into the filmed equivalent of a Facebook page. This is progress ("maturity") of a sort, I guess, but a consequence is that The Skin I Live In soon becomes pernickety in its horrors, taking a full minute to unfold surgical scrubs and gloves other, less squeamish filmmakers would pass over in a heartbeat. (And we conclude: yes, this is a horror movie for people who don't really like horror movies.)

Certain sequences remain reliably out there, if not outright batshit. It is unmistakably the Almodóvar of Tie Me Up! who unleashes a man styled as a tiger, just as the film is settling down after half an hour, to take Vera in his jaws and maul her. (There's a perversely elegant flourish as this intruder pauses to unzip the pockets in which Vera's breasts are contained, a flash of witty decorum to which I don't think the younger Almodóvar would have been given.) Yet this hellcat proves, like much else here, purely decorative: a mere offshoot of a tangled family history involving Banderas's housekeeper (Marisa Paredes, another link to Almodóvars past) and the surgeon's traumatised daughter (Blanca Suarez); at the halfway mark, the film pussyfoots into torture-porn territory, replacing that subgenre's usual leering gender emphases with one primarily concerned with what it feels like for a girl.

The effect is odd and momentarily inelegant, as though a long-time Almodóvar fan who'd found Broken Embraces a respectable chore had taken it upon themselves to kidnap the projectionist and splice in the most contentious scenes from Kika or Matador. Sumptuously conceived scenes in which the actors sit around telling stories are thus interrupted by sudden transgressive flurries (necessitating a comically distanced attitude to rape no hetero director would be permitted to get away with) that then have to explained away by sumptuously conceived timeshifts or scenes in which the actors sit around telling stories.

What we're witnessing here is the downside of the convoluted narrative style Almodóvar first hit upon with All About My Mother (or the Ruth Rendell adaptation Live Flesh before it), and developed through Talk to Her and Volver to arrive at Broken Embraces, which again recycled certain of the director's tropes and ideas, but also worked in its filmmaker-protagonist's sincere regret for the things he had and hadn't seen. When it doesn't seem to matter - when there's no emotional investment in the characters, save as mannequins to be chopped and changed and rearranged in the film's front window - the combination of complex plotting, and Almodóvar's incessant accessorising of same, just seems overblown, overdone, overlong. Vera appears to get forgotten about in that second act, and while it later emerges she's actually been dragged off for a wardrobe change (the - surely inconclusive? - final scene will take place in a charity clothes shop), her absence muffles the impact of her belated fightback, her quest for self, in a way a (let's say straight) 90-minute genre movie simply wouldn't have the time to fumble.

It doesn't help that, in the meantime, Banderas seems to be offering a frightfully dull and restricted re-reading of the Dieter Laser role from The Human Centipede; much of the film's appeal - too much, in fact - is thus dependant on the complete pliability of Anaya, presented as a halfway house between the overtly sexual Abril and the doll-like Cruz, opening the film in a Pilates pose that demonstrates her willingness to bend any which way and closing it as the proud owner of the most sucked nipples in European cinema, a title Cruz herself once held around the time of Bigas Luna's Jamón Jamón. The film, too, proves no more than a light, flimsy, half-exercised stretch for its maker, and it struck me that the signature item in the Almodóvar catalogue this time round isn't Anaya's all-in-one body stocking, nor the case of exponentially expansive dildos the scientist presents his subject with at one point, but the spheroid yoga paraphernalia dotted around Vera's cell, either to enhance her curves or as a cruel reminder of a past existence: whether empty or stuffed, they have much in common with the film, these ever-so-stylish balls.

The Skin I Live In is on nationwide release.

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