I must admit to never having been a big Pedro Almodóvar fan. Every now and again he’ll come up with an Hable Con Ella (Talk To Her), hinting at the kind of talent which my old film studies teachers used to wax lyrical about, but the majority of his films have to me been tiresomely self-indulgent and more concerned with putting sexual hang-ups on screen in the form of shrieking melodrama, rather than having anything in particular to say. Well, apart from that all men are evil, women self-flagellating and transvestites kinda awesome despite their inevitable suffering, obviously caused by the mothers they want to turn into. So, yes. Hang-ups.
The Skin I Live In isn’t exactly a radical departure from those ‘themes’. In fact, fans will notice any number of recurring motifs from the director’s filmography. The much publicised move from melodrama to the horror genre, or something closer to body horror in fact, has not subsumed Almodóvar’s central preoccupations at all, but rather made him work within a more tightly structured narrative. It is a perfect example of an auteur movie at once being more accessible than his usual work, but keeping his distinctive identity irrefutably intact. This is an Almodóvar movie through and through, but one with a newfound focus which has unexpectedly produced one of the most powerful, and uncomfortable, films of the year.
Antonio Banderas plays a celebrated surgeon who happens to keep a woman locked up in a top floor room of his house. You shouldn’t go into the film knowing much more than that: every additional piece of information will weaken the impact of the twist around which the movie revolves. If you have seen twist movies before and are perhaps thinking that knowing what happens isn’t necessarily the worst, I can guarantee that you have never seen a twist like this before. Far from some M. Night Shyamalan-style ‘oh, I didn’t see that coming’ affair, which puts a neat spin on the story in the final act, it is a jaw-dropping Grand Guignol move that throws everything seen up until that point into disarray.
One clue that can be offered, since it has already been made explicit by interviews and publicity for the film, is that this is a story about revenge. Yet it is a form of revenge way beyond the Hollywood standard of killing the person in question, or even torturing them or murdering their loved ones. It is bigger and more all-consuming, wrapping the perpetrator up in his crime for the rest of his life. The twist is foreshadowed heavily, brilliantly, ahead of the crucial moment. The truth may even cross your mind at some point while piecing together the jigsaw that Almodóvar expertly lays out, but is the kind of thing that will be dismissed out of hand. When the line arrives which reveals what is happening, refraining from making the truth explicit but filling in the last gap preventing you from seeing the whole picture, it is like being forced to accept a truth so macabre it seemed impossible to imagine anyone could really go there. Almodóvar could.
Some viewers may come out saying that it is ridiculous and unrealistic: guilty on both counts. That doesn’t matter, though, any more than it does in the work of Edgar Allan Poe or Mary Shelley. Even the main characters are variations on the gothic horror tropes, with Antonio Banderas in particular seething intensity as the mad scientist and Elena Ayana no less superb, even if to go into why could risk giving too much away. What counts more than realism is the idea, its implications and what it says about how we see ourselves and how we read others through the way we see them. If Almodóvar’s motifs have previously been lathered across the screen in garish, meaningless orgies, here they are concentrated to a single point where everything, as a story and a collection of themes, is expressed in perfect, terrible clarity.
Almodóvar’s aesthetic wildness is similarly refined. There are some jaw-dropping visuals on display, with symbolism and artistic meaning boiling under the surface as opposed to the director’s usual scattershot excess. Colours are as important as ever, but emprisoned into specific points on the screen, emphasizing a character’s state of mind or being as he or she passes across them. There is something almost thrilling about seeing this particular director so sadistically constrict into such tiny spaces the colours and visual stylings he usually allows to ejaculate across the screen. It makes each so potent that whenever they appear, it is like watching them hammer on a gaol door in a frenzied bid to break free. Alberto Iglesias’ score is given more room to have fun but still never goes over the top, moving fluidly with the tone of the film and delivering one superlative homage to Bernard Herrmann’s notorious work on Psycho.
There are two flaws preventing the film from achieving immaculate greatness, both related to the running time. It is not so much that it is too long, but that too long is spent lingering over certain periods of the story when more aggressive editing could have made them more concise without losing meaning or impact. The story needs to end at the point it does, but that point is too far from when the twist is revealed. As long lasting as the impact of that moment is, it has settled down by the time the credits roll: better to let audiences leave the cinema in a state of shell-shock than give them the chance to recover, making the final act seem weaker by comparison. Similarly, much of what happens in Almodóvar’s trademark flashback is vital to giving weight to the impending horror, but is stretched out a little too meticulously.
In a film where even the make-up reflects the story’s themes, those blemishes are just noticeable enough to stop it short of the perfection so hungrily lusted after. Even if not quite a masterpiece, The Skin I Live In is Almodóvar’s most complete work to date, retaining his experimental streak and bold auteurism but channelling it all towards a single, sinister purpose. If you can resist spoiling the story beats for yourself ahead of time, you will find waiting for you the kind of horror experience that only Pedro Almodóvar could deliver, an easy contender as one of the best movies of the year – the gauntlet has been thrown, Tinker Tailor – but one that will ensure you never trust a surgeon again for life.
The Skin I Live In (La Piel Que Habito) is out now in the UK and Europe. It will have a limited release in the US on October 14th.