The revenge story is given a cruel update in Almodovar's latest
offering, as wealthy plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard exacts chilling
retribution on the man he believes raped his daughter. Reunited for
the first time in two decades with his 80s darling Antonio
Banderas, the film sees the director, along with his protagonists,
go where few others could.
Loosely adapted from Thierry Jonquet's 2003 novel Mygale
(Tarantula), the story pushes the demented and almost
Frankenstein-like Ledgard (Banderas) away from the book's original
plotlines. Familiar themes of desire, betrayal and love are
presented in strangely sterile surroundings, whilst the loving
operation of machinery is imbued with a kind of methodical and
mundane glamour. An air of alienation is compounded by bizarre,
far-fetched plotlines, which owe more to science fiction than
anything previously seen in the director's oeuvre.
Identity in relation to the physical self is a major theme,
perhaps best summed up when one character, dressed a tiger for the
carnival celebrations, reveals a birthmark in order that his own
mother might recognise him. But the idea that the outside dictates
the inside never quite convinces, and the really interesting
questions the film raises - such as the role of gender essentialism
in forming core identity - are never fully explored.
Representation is toyed with: the beautiful Marisa Paredes's
character appearing in a variety of formats; adored from afar
through TV screens in a twist on the courtly love convention. The
mis en scene refers constantly to the female form, from Rubenesque
artwork in Ledgard's lavish mansion, to the simple straw mannequin
in a boutique shop window.
As ever, the narrative is chequered with mystery and intrigue,
the revelation of which proves to be one of the film's central
pleasures. Gone is the warmth of Volver and All About My Mother -
vanished, along with the usual helping of camp. Light relief is,
well, similarly light, and the humour which does surface depends
heavily upon male anxieties surrounding castration and
male-penetration; anathemas with which the audience are implicitly
expected to share.
Turning to female fears, the film features an unusually high
number of rape scenes, ranging from the straightforward and brutal,
to sexual encounters as ambiguous as they are unwanted.
Having exhausted the nature of rape, the question of what to do
with the attacker is indulged with sick fantasy. The idea that the
most cruel and apt punishment for the perpetrator is to physically
transform him into a female-bodied being appears stupid in a
context of otherwise intelligent storytelling. That the character
who undergoes this mutilation should become perfectly feminine in
both mannerisms and temperament is, frankly, absurd.
Despite a sympathetic lesbian portrayal, there is a distinctly
misogynistic quality to the film which cannot be ignored. One gets
the impression that Almodovar is obsessed with women, without ever
really knowing if he likes them.
The intensity with which the action starts fades by the closing
scenes, though those hungry to see loose ends tied up will not be
left disappointed. Whether the director's own passion is in decline
remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure - despite the often
squirm-inducing violence, my eyes were glued to the screen from
start to finish.
The Skin I Live In will be released in the UK on August
Photo by José Haro El Deseo