Monday, October 10, 2011

NYFF ’11: The Skin I Live In

Call it facial determinism. In Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Face of Another, a new “life-mask” countenance fundamentally alters the personality of a scarred businessman. With his latest film, Pedro Almodóvar addresses similar themes of appearance and identity, but dramatically raises the stakes for his experimental subject in The Skin I Live In (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York, following Wednesday ‘s gala screening at the 49th New York Film Festival.

Dr. Robert Ledgard gave his mysterious “patient” Vera the face of his late wife, who was severely burned and disfigured in a fateful car crash. As a result, Marilia, his motherly housekeeper, worries the plastic surgeon is developing an unhealthy emotional attachment to his unwilling test-case. As flashbacks explain the chain of events that brought Vera to his isolated villa, we learn just how twisted their potential relationship would be.

Though billed as Almodóvar’s horror movie, Skin really constitutes a continuation of his noir-esque period begun with his previous film, the underappreciated Broken Embraces. Indeed, it is structured around a big twist, which makes it challenging to discuss its themes and motifs without getting spoilery. Frankly, just a few details are probably sufficient to give the game away. However, it is probably safe to say Ledgard nurses some serious grievances, while initial appearances are deliberately deceptive.

Though also undeniably restrained compared to the films that made Almodóvar’s reputation, Broken Embraces had a slow-burning undercurrent of dark passion. By contrast, Skin is a decidedly chilly film. Overtly voyeuristic, Almodóvar avoids delving beneath the surface of his characters, consciously concentrating his focus on the surface level instead. Still, he adeptly uses the Hitchcockian cinematic vocabulary as well as the claustrophobic setting to create a fairly creepy genre film.

Although he never truly unleashes his inner mad doctor, Antonio Banderas is certainly a severe presence as Dr. Ledgard. However, Elena Anaya is quite remarkable as the suicidal Vera, convincingly handling her character revelations, which are considerable. A tricky role to approach, she fully commits to it, providing the film’s only emotional center.

Skin is an intriguing film, but were it not for the vulnerability and immediacy of Anaya’s work, we would simply feel as though we were being played, rather than pulled inexorably into a dark morality drama. While the implications of Almodóvar’s screenplay (adapted from Thierry Jonquet’s novel Mygale), will stay with viewers, his execution will most likely leave them cold. A mixed bag, Skin is largely distinguished by Anaya’s performance. For Almodóvar fans, it screens twice this Wednesday (10/12) as a gala selection of the 2011 NYFF. Though only standby tickets are still available, it also opens theatrically this Friday (10/14) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.