• Isobel Wise

The Skin I Live In

Revelling in a space that conflates horror with the surreal and sensual, Pedro Almodóvar’s 2011 The Skin I Live In is a film that seduces its audience just as much as it provokes them. Set within the sprawling and secluded estate of plastic surgeon Robert (Antonio Banderas), the audience is introduced to Vera (Elena Anaya), his patient, prisoner and obsession. Driven by grief and a desire for vengeance, Robert imprisons Vera in a room, devoting his time to the creation of an artificial skin that will leave her fireproof and free of imperfection. Banderas is formidable in the role, balancing malevolence with elegance and debonair charm. Anaya is equally as captivating. In their interactions, desire is met fiercely with rage, philanthropy twisted by masochism and their respective brilliance forever threatened by a propensity for domination. The result of this pairing is an intoxicating work that, when peppered with distinctly Almodóvarian eccentricities, oozes with zeal.

To write of Skin without spoiling its plot is a difficult task. Rejecting any linearity, the filmic structure is almost ophidian in nature. Events and explanations unfurl and unknot as the audience are invited to slither through dream immersions, flashbacks and clever expositional dialogue. It is a narrative that demands and rewards attentive minds. Each scene is capable of making you feel queasy, entranced and unable to predict the film’s bite. Sexual perversions and deviations, desires and obsessions, assaults, gender identities, vendettas and deaths saturate the voluptuous storyline. This macabre melodrama is confirmed as nothing short of thrilling.

As Almodóvar’s lens snakes its way between the past and present, through events tinged with sexual awakening, violence and catastrophe, it conjures a world that is sublimely glossy and outrageously voyeuristic. The camera follows Robert moving through a sea of modernist furnishings and accessories, striding along hallways caressed by the Old Masters and Surrealists. CCTV broadcasts Vera’s movements into rooms around the house, images consumed hungrily by Robert who conflates her beauty with her scientific potential. This distinctly carceral omniscience sees Almodóvar braiding his lavish visual aesthetic with academic influences, presenting the prison-cum-palatial-home as some Foucauldian surveillance nightmare complete with Freudian unheimlich muses.

Just as Vera struggles to escape the labyrinth of Robert’s design, the audience are as equally detained by the incessant tangibility of the film’s aesthetic and its surging score. The colours, fabrics and lighting contrived by art director Carlos Bodelón and cinematographer José Luis Alcaine are succulent, expensive and rich in references. The paintings punctuating the penitentiary are undulating sierras of flesh trapped within liminal spaces. The entire histories of Art, Science and Philosophy are kept docile within pages upon shelves. Bodily autonomy, mad scientists and sequestration are here ripped away from the depths of cobwebs and candlelit castles and take residence in a world that is as sleek as it is an extension of those who inhabit it. In one scene we note Robert dazed by the spectacle he has created. Vera stares back through the screen. This is a film of gazes and looks, that of the surgeon, the art critic, the insane, and perhaps most Almodóvarian of all, the inmate - a reciprocity that provides the provocative punch this acclaimed director is known for.