Tuesday, 30 August 2011

'The Skin I Live In' review:

Nothing if not provocative, the cinema of Pedro Almodovar is a frank and blackly comic exploration of taboo subjects told with an uncommon compassion for even the most depraved of characters. His latest work, 'The Skin I Live In', fits in comfortably alongside his best, with a warped tale of mad scientists, drugs, revenge, rape, voyeurism, kidnapping and murder fizzing along with no small amount of humour - or indeed humanism.

The director's one-time muse Antonio Banderas returns to the repertory company to star in this suspenseful, almost Hitchcockian thriller which superficially resembles their last collaboration, 1990s 'Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!' - with the actor again caught up in a romance with one held against her will in a locked room.

However 21 years on, this dangerous obsessive is not a clownish, naive innocent, but a clinical and effortlessly sophisticated scientist who dedicates himself towards bio-engineering a replacement for human skin in his subterranean lab after his burns victim wife commits suicide. This time the lady falling prey to Stockholm syndrome is played by Elena Anaya ('Hierro') and her situation, identity and relationship with Banderas form an intriguing mystery as the expertly constructed plot takes many twists and turns - equal parts disturbing and exciting right up to the climax.

This is one of those times when to say any more about the story would be to reveal too much, as part of its appeal lies in the filmmaker's gift for misdirection and surprise [listen to episode 65 of the Splendor Cinema Podcast for a spoiler-ridden discussion about these themes and twists], so instead I'll just add to the chorus praising Almodovar's breathtakingly sumptuous use of colour and his masterful command of the camera - with some especially majestic zooms as he has fun with a security camera motif.

Really ingenious though is the way replacement skin - and the real-world medical marvel of face transplants - is used as a device to explore notions of identity. How much we're defined by the skin we're in is the film's existential point of crisis. And it's a compelling one, which culminates in a heartfelt and dramatic pay-off.

When reviewing so-called "World Cinema" you often encounter brilliant films - works of genius and even really great pieces of entertainment - that you know stand next to no chance of reaching a wide audience. For most 'Of Gods and Men' would be far too austere and ponderous, whilst even 'Tree of Life' was far too esoteric for the crowds that flocked to see "that Brad Pitt movie". Yet 'The Skin I Live In' has such tremendous, heartening potential for cross-over appeal, thanks to its tight, well-paced and surprise-filled story. It's never less than engaging for a single frame and, with its ruminations on identity and moral complexity (to put it lightly), must also rank among the year's most intelligent and thought-provoking films.

'The Skin I Live In' is out now in the Uk where it has been rated '15' by the BBFC.

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