Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Skin I Live In (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Skin I Live in

The first time I came across a Pedro Almodovar film, I was a student at the University of Miami. Almodovar was known by both of  his first and last names then, and the director seemed less of a person and more like a provocative creature, perhaps an emotion, a color, or a cinematic perfume.  

I had no idea. I went into the university cinema to see "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!" (1990) because I had a crush on a girlfriend who invited me, but it wasn't a "date". There was a raffle prize of a pair of handcuffs. Real ones. As it turned out, I won. 

The handcuffs of hard and shiny metal were as strange and curious to me as Almodovar. I knew both involved sex but what was I going to do with a pair of handcuffs and what could I gain in watching the film? The only thing I thought about the title was that it probably involved sex and hopefully a nude scene. I remember lots of bright color, fast cutting, and some feelings of apprehension. I thought of Hitchcock and the romantic sexual cravings within my own body, but I don't remember much else. 

Now decades later, a calmer version of myself has rolled in to see "The Skin I Live In", the latest film by Almodovar, but as I looked at my body, I noticed that I was still leaning a bit forwards and sideways, my right hand clenched in excitement, much the way it was in the early 90s, but I still didn't know what to expect.

Simply put, "The Skin I Live In" is a rich, Gothic feast for the eyes, fast-paced and strange, with no uneven lulls at any point. Loyal devotees of Almodovar's films will find the same lush scenery and the director's trademark use of brilliant  color that never fails to make parrots fly away in envy. All the traditional cues are here but the story is laced in black right out of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein or Poe.

Antonio Banderas stars as Dr. Ledgard, an ultra-controlling  plastic surgeon who has been grieving over the death of his wife who was horribly burned. Ledgard lives in a opulent mansion. Each day he goes to his lab and works on a project to produce "artificial skin", from a kind of adhesive nectar, as far as I can tell, made from bees and human growth cells. In one of the rooms Ledgard keeps a live-in patient, Vera, (Elena Anaya) a very attractive feline ingenue who looks strikingly like Simone Simon. She gets more beautiful as the movie goes on on, but the cat's got my tongue.

Vera, in a flesh-toned body suit is kept in confinement, doing yoga and studying the sculpture of Louise Bourgeois, whose work, with its tightly meshed and life sized sewn figures, speaks to both Vera and Dr. Ledgard.

Vera is almost always seen from the back. Almadovar's almost fetishistic reverence of Vera's vertebrae, her buttery skin and the violin curve of her hips is on par with Salvador Dali's portraits of Gala. It hardly seems coincidental that Ledgard's new skin process is actually called "Gal" after the doctor's deceased wife. But with all of the film's cold whiteness that ultimately dominates the tell-tale lushness of elegant surrealism, the artist that Almodovar seems to be echoing the most is David Cronenberg. 

But he does  Cronenberg one  better. There is a black heart here, but  it tilts and surprises with the narrative almost going full speed ahead into a subversive sun, yet this cat and mouse game with a sexual double cross never quits.
This is  an Almodovar melodrama with enough twists and turns to invert a Cronenberg story of dread into a Toledo carnival. Just the sight of Elena Anaya is enough to make anyone's heart melt, be they male, female or transgendered. When the camera moves over her body it is like watching the production of white chocolate in its most liquid form. Vera's skin is as infinite and as blankly voluptuous as a Dalinian beach---bright and visually aromatic.

"The Skin I Live In" is a taut suspenseful Grand Guignol yarn that will delight the eye as well as race the heart. An Almodovar film is like seeing an acquaintance  who is up to his usual obsessions, but who still remains exotic, mysterious and thrillingly unreachable.

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