8 September 2011


On Tuesday, I went along to the Tyneside Cinema for a double bill of films in limited UK distribution. One of them was Kill List, and as it's the hot topic of the moment, let me quickly explain why I'm not reviewing it yet. I found it overrated, but that's not why- I'm going to give it a second viewing before I write about it, and even in that case, there's nothing I can say about it that won't spoil it. Worth a look, because it's one of the most interesting British films of the year, although not one of the best.

The other film I saw, the Spanish melodrama The Skin I Live In, is similarly at spoiler risk, but it's considerably easier to talk about without giving too much away. As it begins, we find ourselves in the home of Robert Ledgard, a widowed plastic surgeon who lives a reclusive life in his mansion in Toledo. Upstairs, he keeps a young woman called Vera under lock and key, secluded from the outside world, as Robert experiments with synthetic skin. Only from their dreams do we begin to realise the full extent of their unusual relationship.

Seriously, the less you know about this one, the better. Although this review is essentially spoiler-free, I barely knew what this film was even about when I saw it, and I'm glad for it. If you know nothing about it, be assured that it's great, and go see it. It's the best way, and personally, I found myself completely taken in by its non-linear narrative and all of the secrets that it held. Telling the story this way around greatly enhances the effectiveness of the characters, particularly the stern, secretive Robert.

It's the first time I've actually seen Antonio Banderas on-screen in a film since 2005's The Legend of Zorro, which isn't to say that he hasn't been busy, only that he hasn't been in many films that have appealed to me since then. But I welcomed his return, as Robert, in which he creates an impatient and fervoured character who still has formidable presence. In hindsight, it's an even better performance than when you're watching it. It's deliberate, but in the light of the fully unfolded narrative, it's also ambiguous enough to reward repeat viewings.

Elena Anaya finds similar success, in the role of a woman whose entire identity has been erased. She still has a name, Vera, and she practices yoga as she wiles away the long hours of imprisonment, being fed by dumb waiter. Vera can be at once seductive and frazzled, a woman driven almost to the end of her tether by her jailer, and Anaya also reaps the benefits of a multi-layered narrative. It's a thought-provoking film, and the actors are as conscious of the beguiling narrative as the director.

Pedro Almodóvar's films make up one of the embarrassing gaps in my cinematic knowledge, though most of his films are on my to-watch list, and he certainly seems to have made enough of a name for himself that he can proclaim this one to be "a film by Almodóvar" without appearing presumptuous. The film is based on a novel by Thierry Jonquet, called Tarantula, but it also owes a thematic debt to Frankenstein. Perhaps, by now, that's a little passé, but it's not simply a question of who is the monster and who is the man, between the obsessive Robert and the subjugated Vera, but a question of who created who.

Both of these questions are concerned with identity, and as Robert espouses early on, while lecturing about face transplants, a person's identity is in their face. You don't realise how completely some of the characters have lost their identities when you first see them, but the intrigue of the film is in the slow-burning reveal. The trade-off is that a lot of film seems ancillary, up until a point at which sleeping characters flashback to the truth of the tale. This includes the aforementioned synthetic skin, and an interlude that involves the arrival of Robert's maid's son, resplendent in a carnival tiger outfit. No, really.

The full story of The Skin I Live In is jumbled up for the maximum melodramatic effect, and the narrative's expository sucker-punch is not to be missed. The film looks stunning, with its sumptuous shots of Toledo, but it masks a dark, meaningful and disturbing plot. Thanks in part to the great lead performances, it continues to unravel with gusto, even after its big reveal is spent. In some quarters, this is being referred to as Almodóvar's masterpiece. I may have a lot of catching up to do, but I can be certain that I'm off to an astounding start.

The Skin I Live In is now showing in select cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen The Skin I Live In, why not share your comments below? Save yer smartarse grammatical comments- we all know it's supposed to be The Skin In Which I Live. Blurp.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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