The Skin I Live Inrecommended viewing

Face without a body
★★★★
☆
Released: 
2011
Director: 
Pedro Almodovar
Starring: 
Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Jan Cornet, Marisa Paredes
The Setup: 
Mad scientist keeps woman hostage as he experiments on repairing her skin. Which is to say the least.
Discussion: 

Okay here it is, the latest Almodovar film, which I am slightly obligated to see, because of his whole history of making really arty, interesting movies that explore identity and gender. Unfortunately I haven't really enjoyed an Almodovar movie in a while--except Volver, which I loved--but movies like Bad Education and Talk To Her left me walking out like "Okay, I can understand that it was good, but it didn't move me much, I didn't get very involved, and I didn't really enjoy the experience of sitting through it." Which can often bode well for these movies aging gracefully and becoming better over time, but for now, well, there it is. I had to see it but I'm not so sure about anything else.

We open with a woman, Vera, in a room covered with writing on the walls. She has a beautiful face, but she wears a form-fitting bodysuit. There are servants downstairs who prepare meals for her and send them up via dumbwaiter. Eventually we put together that she is a prisoner. We see Antonio Banderas as Robert giving a speech about his experimental artificial skin, and we know that he is experimenting on Vera, and that all of this is highly unethical. We also learn that he had a wife who was horribly burned in a car accident, and are led to suspect that the woman upstairs may be his wife. Around this time the movie is alluding heavily to Eyes Without a Face, in which a doctor's daughter was burned in an accident, and he keeps her in secret while experimenting with transplanting others' faces onto her. You'll also notice lots of artwork featuring reclining nudes, compared to the image of Vera reclining in her bodysuit on the massive screen Robert has that monitors her room.

Okay, if you want to see the movie, you should probably stop now, although I'll warn you again when major, major spoilers are about to happen.

SPOILERS > > >
Robert has a servant, Marilia, who we soon come to understand is his mother. Her other son, Zeca, drops by, and we understand that he is an escaped criminal. He learns of the existence of Vera, ties his mother up, breaks into Vera's room and rapes her, thinking she is Robert's wife, Gal. Robert comes home and kills him. Marilia tells Vera that Zeca was actually Robert's brother, but Robert didn't know that. We learn that Zeca was having an affair with Gal, and "left her burning like a torch" back in the day. Gal was horribly burned and kept in a room where she was unable to see herself, but when she finally did, leapt to her death, right in front of her daughter, Norma.

Okay, now here come major spoilers, but not quite über-spoilers. We flash back six years, and meet this fellow Vincente, who is a rakish scumbag who works in his mother's resale shop, and is near-constantly on some kind of drug. He is at a party where Norma is, and ends up raping Norma out in the garden. Robert finds her and she is hysterical. He stalks Vincente and takes him prisoner, keeping him chained in a cave. We learn that Norma is now in a mental institution, and she retreats at the sight of her father. Since she came to consciousness after the rape and it was Robert there, she thinks that her father raped her. We later learn that she leapt out the window to her death, just like her mother. In here you might be saying "Wait a minute, is this still the flashback?" and yes indeedy, it is.

Now here come the über-spoilers. If you don't want to know... well you should pretty much go see the movie, at this point. Come back after and we'll talk about it. Robert brings Vincente in and gives him an unauthorized sex-change operation. There's a scene of sick humor as Robert presents Vincente with an ever-enlarging series of dildos, telling him to use them on himself in order to stretch his new vagina. Years go on and he uses his new skin to sculpt Vincente's body completely into that of a woman, which is where the bodysuit came from, and we see Vincente brought into the room with the writing while it's blank, and learn that he wrote on it himself in order to record the passing of time. Eventually Robert tells him that he must change his name to Vera, as he is now completely a woman, and it is there but left unsaid that he has been made to resemble Robert's dead wife. We now return to the present.

Well guess what? Now Robert is in love with Vera, and after Zeca's rape of her, their romance takes flight. Only not so much, for as soon as Vera can get a gun, she kills Robert and his mother. He returns to the shop, where he convinces the assistant that she's Vincente, and just as he whispers this to his mother, the screen fades out, and that's the end.

So it's hard to tell what's going on in this movie, only one is aware of all the doubling and tripling of figures and events. Robert has a brother he doesn't know about. He makes Vincente into a double of his wife, who Zeca rapes, thinking she is the wife, whom he used to be having an affair with. Both wife and daughter leap out windows to their deaths. Vincente raped the daughter, and ends up getting raped himself. So it's all this doubling and tripling of identities and events, but it's difficult to see what purpose it really serves except to keep turning the issues around so we see all sides of it. Which is interesting in itself, I suppose.

Another review I read objected to the length of the flashback, saying it tells us in an hour what could have been said in 15 minutes, but I think that's to miss the point, which is the long journey to get there and all of the implications it raises. As we gradually come to realize that Vera is Vincente, it's not just about the fact of the matter, but all the slow twisting of identity to get there, and enriching of the events we've already seen as we learn more and more about what led us there. Ultimately I'm not so sure there's much of anything except this twisting, but if that's all it is, it's still pretty interesting.
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Nevertheless, it's something that ends and leaves one a little puzzled, not with a feeling of "That was great!" The ending credits show a crystalline strand of DNA, slowly turning this way and that as it changes colors, which may be all the film is about--a twisting of identity and gender so that we can see it from many different angles. I was involved during the entire thing, and there certainly are enough plot revelations happening every few minutes, yet I was simultaneously a little bored. It looks fantastic, the images are creamy and rich with color, and it all proceeds apace, but I have to say I maybe came to admire it more in recounting it for this review than I did while actually sitting through it. Still, I think this will mature well and reveal its quality over time, when expectations are lower, and it doesn't have the burden of having to impress one in the theater.

That said, now it's a few days later, and I feel much more positively toward this movie and am really glad I saw it.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, you probably should, although it might be more interesting to have seen than to sit through.