Pedro Almodóvar, “The Skin I Live In / La Piel Que Habito” (2011)
Georges Franju’s sci-fi horror classic “Eyes without a Face” was overdue for a remake with updated cosmetic surgery and stem cell technologies and, seeing as how these days the Spanish are making the arthouse flicks that the French used to be so good at, it’s fitting that Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar has remade that film in his own wacky Almodóvar way. Familiar motifs such as the narrative posing in flashback form, family skeleton secrets falling out of closets and reconciliations between mothers and children flesh out the original “Eyes …” plot and break every known moral convention to explore issues about identity, especially identity based on superficial criteria such as facial appearance and beauty, and stereotypes about gender.
Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) is a brilliant plastic surgeon whose wife was disfigured in a fire when her car caught alight. Although he saves the wife’s life and repairs what damage has been done to her face, she later kills herself by defenestration in front of their daughter Norma. Norma becomes psychotic and stays that way for years until doctors judge her well enough to attend a wedding and its reception with her father. The girl meets Vicente (Jan Cornet) and the two sneak off into the garden for a pash. While making out, Norma hears the wedding singer warbling the song that had been playing when her mother threw herself out the window and the girl has a severe reaction. Vicente, frightened, runs away and Ledgard, searching for Norma, finds her catatonic in the garden. With the girl regressing permanently to her psychotic state, Ledgard hunts down Vicente, imprisons him and subjects him to a series of cosmetic surgery operations that include castration, a sex change and other changes: the result is the lovely Vera (Elena Anaya) who becomes the focus for Ledgard’s obsessive desires and manias.
The script is skilfully written and proceeds at a fast pace yet by using a narrative structure of a series of introductions followed by flashback history, it sets before viewers a bunch of characters of whom we form first-impression opinions; all of these impressions are undermined by the film’s second half which takes the form of memories seen through Ledgard and Vera’s dreams. We begin to understand the true horror of Vera’s experience at the hands of Ledgard who experiments on her as much out of curiosity and thirst for career fame and advancement of scientific knowledge as for vengeance. There could have been some very instructive lessons delivered about the seductive nature of scientific inquiry and how it can blind people to issues of ethical responsibility, exploitation of subjects (especially human subjects) and abusing their freedom and rights, and about the nature of freedom itself: can a person experience freedom and individuality even while imprisoned in an unwanted body and sexual identity and surrounded by another beautiful prison layer (Ledgard’s palatial home)? We see Vera educate herself with yoga and art while trapped in her beautiful jail; would Vicente have become a more educated person if he had not been captured and tormented the way he has been? Who is actually more free, Vera or Ledgard? – Vera believes herself the prisoner but Ledgard, in thrall to his obsessions and desire for vengeance, may actually be the less free of the two. But this movie being an Almodóvar movie, deep lessons about obsession, revenge and power and control over other people are avoided; we get instead a moderately convoluted story that piles shock upon shock and laugh upon laugh while the background reverberates with the invisible noise of shattering moral conventions and continuous breaches of audience tolerance.
Visually the film is beautiful and, despite the use of muted blues and green, flamboyant in that distinctive Almodóvar way: there is an added clinical precision that wouldn’t be out of place in a Cronenberg film, thanks to the subject matter and its treatment in the plot. Banderas does an excellent job as the quietly manic doctor / researcher who is as reasonable as a mad man can be, and Anaya acquits herself well as his victim. Maria Paredes as Ledgard’s housekeeper (and secret biological mother) Marilia helps to keep the plot going smoothly. Minor characters are little more than cardboard cut-outs; even Vicente rarely rises from ardent young would-be lover and wronged prisoner.
“Eyes without a Face” was a deep, thoughtful film, efficient and almost minimal in its delivery, turning on the issue of free will; “The Skin I Live In” may be more glamorous and arty in appearance, and the plot may twist and turn effortlessly with the skill and grace of a dancer, but I find this effort an inferior film compared to Franju’s effort. Tricksiness in plot and themes is never a good substitute for substance.