By Joan Ellis
The Skin I Live In is yet another twist in celebrity entitlement. It seems that when directors achieve world-wide recognition for their considerable talents, they feel entitled to push the limits of their art, and when they do, they push it right in the face of the captive audience that has come to see their work. Pedro Almodόvar has made many fine movies (All About My Mother and Volver among many.) Over the years he has become a darling of the New York Film Festival that chose this film to open their 2011 festival, and this past summer it was a big hit in Cannes.
On such occasions the entertainment press tends to massage its ego by applauding anything that offends ordinary moviegoers. Although others may interpret this movie in ways different from mine, the truth of it is that I saw only depravity, sadism, and brutality. Some, by a long stretch of the imagination, might find the humor and fright we see in the old but famous Frankenstein. But this one is too rooted in reality to take flight.
Avoiding specifics – in case you choose to see it – here’s the general drift. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) is an accomplished surgeon who has a fully equipped surgical clinic in a mansion run to perfection by Marilla (Marisa Paredes.) The clinic exists for Robert to indulge his surgical fantasies. He has imprisoned Vera (Elena Anaya) in basement isolation where her necessities arrive via dumbwaiter. He is using her as the guinea pig for the new surgical skin he has developed in reaction to the virtual incineration of his wife in a car accident.
When Robert’s daughter Norma (Blanca Suarez) is raped by a young fellow named Vicente (Jan Cornet), the good doctor kidnaps, beats, and starves the boy before bringing him to the clinic for ruthless surgery. Here you will also meet Zeca (Robert Alamo), another repulsive rapist with a past. All told, we now have three rapists, a vengeful surgeon, two victims, and a convoluted web of grotesque relationships. I won’t ruin an already bad thing for you by explaining the relationships. Just be assured that you will see all of these monsters at work.
There is no denying the visual impact of both Almodόvar’s outstanding filming and the production details, but his skill can’t lift the film beyond its subject and characters. These are people ensnared in the sick thoughts of a doctor who has both the imagination and the tools to implement his impulses. This is a lushly crafted film about a madman with the physical power – as in guns, chains, straps, starvation, and medical procedures – to indulge his hideous fantasies. The director has rekindled thoughts of Joseph Mengele, the Nazi medical experimenter, and this is certainly not something most people want to revisit as entertainment – even in the hands of the talented Pedro Almodόvar. Why, I wonder, has he invited audiences into this nightmare?