The Skin I Live In is the new movie from Pedro Almodóvar and it plays out in his typical genre-bending style. By turns a horror movie, a comedy and a tearjerker and boasting a series of twists and turns, the film looks like a lot of fun. But it wasn’t.
Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) is a celebrated plastic surgeon, who has pioneered a new form of skin, which is fire-retardant and immune to infections. In his secretive villa to Toledo, he has a maid (Marisa Paredes) who looks after him and the woman seemingly held captive in his basement (Elena Anaya).
There isn’t much point in going much further into the film’s plot as it will probably spoil some surprises. And would probably just be confusing. From the perspective of the story, Almodóvar has made trouble for himself. The film begins in the near future (Toledo, 2012) and more than halfway through the story. We are given the back story in a variety of long flashbacks, which make the film a badly thought-out jumble. Scenes go on much too long and you start to wonder why the film is allowing itself to be bogged down in seemingly irrelevant details. Although one particular twist comes along and makes sense of everything that has gone before, the film still seems like a mess. It becomes one of those films that ties itself into knots just to deliver a world-beating twist, but in the end, the twist isn’t very surprising and the journey to it is bumpy and uninspired. After that, the film finally gets to the point, delivering an obvious though well-crafted sequence about real beauty coming from inside. Then the film changes tack again, and again. Ultimately, it is a rambling film and a very good example of an ‘old man’s folly.’ The sad thing is that after having delivered several much more exciting and much shorter films, Pedro Almodóvar has become an unfocussed and messy storyteller.
Not unlike the note that his previous rambling film Broken Embraces ends on, The Skin I Live In is full of sequences that Almodóvar clearly thinks are much more poignant and emotionally-charged than they really are. Here, we have a botched rape scene (the second in the film) which is presented in the style of Rashomon and scored by a sentimental song and is clearly intended to be tear inducing but isn’t. And a twist, delivered with such sobriety and non-sensationalism that you guess it long before it says it out loud. Banderas plays the mad scientist in such a muted performance that you are completely uninvolved. In fact, ‘mad scientist’ is too strong, as he is merely the mildly perturbed scientist. Almodóvar has said that he told Banderas to model his performance on Alain Delon, the impenetrably wooden actor who didn’t light up otherwise great films like L’eclisse, The Leopard and Le Cercle Rouge, and was dull and unlikeable in bad ones like Un Flic. The film becomes cold and clinical when it should have been more fun and/ or more poignant. Quite why Almodóvar wanted a slow and unexciting lead performance in a film this silly is hard to work out.
Almodóvar has a habit of mixing several genres into his film (as I have said before) but here he delivers a film too pretentious to be scary, too serious to be funny and too cold to be tear jerking. But this has happened before with Volver and Broken Embraces. It seems that Almodóvar has been dragging his heels lately. Is he so assured of his international reputation that he thinks anything he does is great? Or is he just not trying hard enough anymore? Or has he lost it? Based on the evidence of The Skin I Live In, it looks like subsequent films by Pedro Almodóvar won’t be much fun anymore.