“The Skin I Live In”: Banderas dares us…

After each Pedro Almodovar film, I make the same mistake; I think he has exhausted the list of sexual taboos to explore. Instead, his latest melodrama plunges the plot into a further epidermal of viewer’s comfort zones: transgender surgery.

Antonio Banderas plays a plastic surgeon, haunted by past tragedies, who is fixated on developing a revolutionary technique in skin synthetics. The experiment involves Elena Anaya, who is locked away in his home under voyeuristic observation. For a quick impression, here’s the trailer – Please note, it does not have any dialogue or spoilers, but it does feature the best vacuum cleaner ever.

This is the antidote to films like ‘Hostel’ and ‘Saw’, where the pleasure is supposed to come from the gory reprisals and/or blatantly gratuitous violence perpetrated by the villain: here Almodovar shares a laugh with the audience at how preposterous that form of entertainment is, instead of taking the opposite approach, as in Michael Haneke’s ‘Funny Games’ of repeatedly breaking the fourth wall in order to slap us all on the wrist for passively accepting Hollywood’s use of glorifying violence.

This new critique of fetishism from Almodovar, however, succeeds where others have failed by celebrating the malevolent machinations behind it and presenting the villain as a true anti-hero, a victim of his own paranoia and obsession. It teems with overtones of Oedipal drama, and the film becomes more of an exploitation of the exploitation genre, side-swiping the tension with an all-too-familiar brand of irreverence.

You might have noticed how I’ve barely mentioned the acting. That’s because it wasn’t great. You see, character is a collision of philosophies. That is why realistic dramatization of human struggle is so difficult. You must first manage the collision and then tackle the schizophrenia of results it produces, rather than simply charting the course of a single idea safely through a series of sensual scenes. The latter is, unfortunately, what Antonio Banderas follows in the film alongside Elena Anaya and others. To criticise the work of Almodovar feels much worse than kicking a stranger in the face, but it’s almost as if his cast looked at the screenplay after signing the contract. It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for veteran Marisa Paredes, though, who must’ve thought, “Oh, how will I portray a gagged mother masquerading as a servant, who watches her son (resplendent in a cat costume) rape a genetically-modified female captive of her other son’s?” No, really. It’s probably something you’d expect to see on The Jeremy Kyle Show in 2056.

Of course, the juxtaposition of Spanish sun and carnivals with surgical procedure lends a certain surrealism that we come to expect with Pedro Almodovar. However, it lacks the quirky, dark humour that made his previous films so enjoyable. Instead, it seems to lean towards a somewhat camp, over-the-top tone which really hijacks the dialogue (at one point Marisa Paredes shouts, after relating the lifestories of her two unbalanced children, “I have insanity in my entrails!”) Sadly, the film doesn’t quite reach the heights of ‘All About My Mother’ or ‘Bad Education’, but it still remains an intriguing commentary on the body as a work of art. It’s always worth the ticket price to see any Almodovar film as his impeccably-written narratives are always a whirlwind of ideas going back-and-forth with rare insights into the human condition. Alas, this film was more of a gentle breeze on a Sunday afternoon (with helpings of incest and rape, naturally). Then the ending, which I found most disappointing, tidily brings us back to the present as we witness the post-story lives of the character/s in an uneven flash-forward that perhaps tries too hard to hit any note of poignancy. But even these final missteps are made with such care and passion by one of Europe’s greatest directors that in the neon nothingness of Oxford’s Ultimate Picture Palace, ‘The Skin I Live In’ glistens like an oasis of non-neon somethingness. Back in the day, we used to call it storytelling.

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