Cannes Movie Review: The Skin I Live In (2011)

Antonio Banderas and Elena Anaya in The Skin I Live In
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Don’t let anyone tell you too much about Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In, to know too much is to ruin the experience. However, please allow me to properly prepare you. It’s still Almodovar. It’s still primarily an art house feature. But if art house ever delved into the world of darkly comic camp this would be that film. Yet, this mixture of content doesn’t necessarily play perfectly upon first viewing, at least not without proper expectations. Perhaps a second screening is necessary to properly set the mood as watching it the first time without proper expectations makes for a bit of an up-and-down ride.

Based on Thierry Jonquet’s novel “Mygale”, The Skin I Live In revolves around Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), a plastic surgeon who’s gone “mad scientist” since losing his wife and daughter. Involving scenes of rape, kidnapping, murder and more, this perversely sexual thriller also doubles as a darkly comic camp film drenched in Almodovar’s signature red and caressing camera movements. As a result, it was partially what I expected, but I was also thrown for quite a loop.

Unpredictable sides stories hold the power to either cause a raised eyebrow or fit of laugher, but no matter what, the lines are always read with a straight face. For these reasons I wasn’t able to immediately grow accustomed to the film as I was unsure if I should take everything so deathly serious or if I was free to laugh at/with the film. Considering as much, the film could potentially play entirely sadistic to an audience that doesn’t find any of it too comical and they wouldn’t be wrong. The subject matter is no laughing matter, but as Almodovar piles on aspects of the film that are hard to take too seriously you begin to find yourself in on the joke.

The perversity of it all causes for curious interpretations of sexual identity as moviegoers will find themselves looking at a certain character one way in the beginning of the film and an entirely different way at the end. This is a fact that makes up for the film’s one major takeaway as it considers our perception of one another based on our outward appearance, rather than what’s beneath the skin. This thread also makes for the largest laugh during the film’s final scene.

I’m sure to some it will be a surprise Banderas is solid in the creepy lead role, but this guy has always been a great actor, his film choices just haven’t always been the best. Banderas has worked with Almodovar several times in the past, but this is the first time since 1990’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and while he still managed to make a few good films inside of the last 21 years, The Skin I Live In looks like it may be the first of a triptych of hopefully solid films he will be bringing us in the near future along with Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire and Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Black Gold. It’s about time he did something outside of voicing animated bees in nasal allergy commercials and a swashbuckling feline in the dwindling Shrek franchise.

On the female side of things, the stunning Elena Anaya (Mesrine: Killer Instinct) stars alongside Banderas as Vera and I’m not telling you anymore about her character than that. Though I will say Anaya’s performance is one to pay attention to, particularly her eyes. Early on she appears to be nothing more than soft and supple flesh to appreciate, but as the mystery behind her character plays out your connection to her will be found via the windows to her soul.

Marisa Paredes as Robert’s housemaid, Marilia, is a different story all together. This is the sixth time Paredes and Almodovar have worked together, the last time being his Oscar-winning feature Talk to Her. Marilia may in fact be a more twisted and dark character than Robert, which is mildly evident early on, but becomes much more so as more and more is revealed.

This was a film I can say now that I liked, but not one I loved. It must also be reiterated that I wasn’t prepared for it. I expected a revenge thriller, and while I got one to a degree, this was a multi-genre feature offering much more than just a vengeful plastic surgeon.

There have always been layers to Almodovar’s films, but I just wasn’t ready for the darkly comic tone that shows itself in fits and spurts. Perhaps this is a problem with the film I’ll come to recognize upon second viewing, or perhaps all will be clear a second time around. Whatever the case, I believe if you’ve read my review you will be much more prepared than I was.