Alex: Dear legions of readers, please forgive us for not posting in so many months. Aaron and I have been extremely busy with various work obligations, travel, and getting our lives together — to make only passing mention of the time we’ve been devoting to watching many old movies for our upcoming All Time Top 100 Lists. (More on this later.)
But Aaron, as ever, has managed to see many a 2011 release, while I am only up to 14. (Yikes!)
That 14th movie is Pedro Almodóvar’s latest, The Skin I Live In. The main character in this movie, a plastic surgeon played by Antonio Banderas, is a pretty bad dude, and the story of the film is the exacting of his vengeance against somebody who has (he believes) done a great wrong to a person he loves.
We’ll try not to give anything away, but this vengeance involves a gradual, and total, change of identity — and, yes, skin.
Antonio’s character, Dr. Robert Ledgard, is some combination of the Jimmy Stewart character in Vertigo and Buffalo Bill. (Not the guy with the traveling wild west show, but the dude who strongly suggests you place the lotion in the basket.) Both movies are overtly referenced. In fact, I think this is a movie that explores the etiology of the bad guy. And I don’t mean that it’s on a quest to find or define genuine evil, but rather it endeavors to construct a villain who could only exist in movies. He’s the quintessential Bad Guy, complete with unlimited financial resources, a highly specialized talent, and a mother who is both controlling and conspiring in his crimes.
Almodóvar always composes his shots with great care and precision, but I thought The Skin I Live In was exquisitely blocked, to use the stage term, even by Pedro’s standards. Much of the time the frame is framing another frame, i.e. we have a lot of scenes of Ledgard observing his captive, who’s locked in a room where cameras watch her every moment, on a monitor. Sometimes she looks back at him — which is to say, straight into the camera lens — and even though he knows she can’t see him, the effect is unsettling (for both him and us).
And in a moment that took my breath away, we watch a TV screen on which a yoga teacher speaks, mesmerizingly, about the benefits of yoga, and as she speaks the camera (i.e. the TV’s perspective) slowly zooms in on her while our camera (i.e. the movie we’re watching) slowly zooms out. Beautiful.
I do feel a little discomfort at all the traumas this movie puts its central female character (and actress) through. I’m not familiar with this Elena Anaya, but her performance is terrific, and clearly she was game for anything. But all the sex in this movie — even the sex involving characters other than her — is a version of violence, and something feels cruel about it. Beyond the characters’ cruelness, it’s the movie’s cruelness.
But, in the movie’s defense, maybe it comes out the other side of misogyny. The heroine’s breasts, which get a lot of camera time, are actually a really important prop in the storytelling. It isn’t prurience that keeps Almodóvar’s gaze on them (heck, the dude’s gay anyway). But still…I’m kinda uncomfortable.
Aaron: Right – so welcome back, Alex. (I love how you blame “us” for not blogging, while you’re the one who was “working” this summer. Nice. (Is this what marriage to you is like? I want a divorce… or at least to stop doing the dishes all the time.))
Your appraisal of Skin is right on the money. I think it’s actually a really well made film (beyond everything else, Pedro has always been an excellent technician) and a beautiful one. He has a strange ability to make things more beautiful than they normally are. A clarity of image that is strange and super-real. You’re exactly right about the blocking here (it’s a film term too, dude, so you don’t have to be so theater-snobby about it, Jesus!). The composition of his shots is magnificent and the use of “parallel structure” between shots is really beautiful. He’s always done wonderful stuff with closeups and continues that stuff here.
I would add to your summary that it’s like Vertigo and Buffalo Bill and also Frankenstein (gosh, I hope that doesn’t give away too much… sorry, people). But it’s also about creating art (Alex, you told me that on text and you were right, so I’ll say it here, but I’ll give you credit for the idea) and about movie-watching… which is Pedro’s art.
I can’t help but think about Almodóvar’s Women on the Verge (by the way, you’re such a fucking elitist to use the fucking accent on the o, Alex. Fucking snob.). That was a film about the post-modernism and the visible camp in queer/feminist narration, while this is much more theoretical, albeit through the lens of an actual lens. Most of what we see of Vera is through a surveillance video screen, though I think the act of thematic allusion is much more subtextual, no? (There is a direct allusion to a line from Women on the Verge, where Robert compliments Vera on her perfect skin, the same line is used in Women on the Verge, when Pepa compliments Marisa on her perfect skin.) This film is about the act of observing people and creating art by creating superficial environments for them… otherwise known as “filmmaking”.
It’s here that I think I don’t totally agree with you, Alex dear. I think the world that Robert creates for Vera is totally violent, but mostly subtley so. She is a captive in his castle (the joke being that it’s the nicest prison cell ever imagined lacking any ugly, sharp corners) and not a Stockholmy happy one (which, of course, is his big mistake). In fact it’s almost an inverted Stockholm complex, where she’s his prisoner for so long he forgets he’s her keeper. She has no free will – or her ability to act on it is totally limited to what she can do inside her cell… which is mostly just cutting up old dresses and making mannequins made of composed parts (mannequins of montage, one could say). This is all a very male way of interacting with the world for Robert, an ubermensch if there ever was one.
I think the violent, degrading sex she’s forced into through the course of the film goes part and parcel with her existence in Robert’s narrative for her. She’s a creature manufactured in darkness, so everything she does and everything that happens to her also exists there too. That Almodóvar suggests a lustful, violent gaze on his heroine’s breasts is exactly the point of the story, I think. (Also, they’re, like, perfect.) Almodóvar is nothing if not a feminist.
My real problem with the film, which, on the whole, I think is mostly really good, is that it really doesn’t add up to all that much. It’s a really fun, gonzo psychodrama that ties up really nicely, but doesn’t really mean all that much. (I know you’re going to crucify me for suggesting that art should mean something, but I really believe it should.) I think what’s great about, say, Women on the Verge, and less so about some later films like Talk to Her or Volver is that there’s a lot of interesting stuff in the first and less interesting stuff in the latter ones. Or rather, the latter ones are trying really hard to make a point, while the former just does it. I also think Almodóvar gets tied up in knots a bit in the middle of the story with the backstory about Robert and his family lineage, etc. (if you see the film, you’ll know what I’m talking about), that doesn’t really lead anywhere and merely seems to be decoration for the sake of decoration.
What I think I like best about the film is how much it feels like a great exploitation film, that I feel a film like Women on the Verge alludes to directly. They’re fun and have lots of sex and intrigue and tie up neatly in 80-some minutes. I guess I’m praising it for the same thing I’m criticizing it for. It’s too simple and perfectly simple at the same time. Maybe it’s that I feel that he’s trying to say more than should be here, but I would be happy if he just said it simply and moved on.
Eh. I lost myself. I’ll stop.