Published Oct 27, 2011This review originally ran as part of Exclaim!'s 2011 Toronto International Film Festival coverage.
As the title suggests, Almodóvar's latest slice of melodramatic complication tackles superficiality in the literal sense, noting both the human tendency to overlook the reality beneath an appealing surface and the tendency to perform aesthetics based on reaction received. Of course, knowing the prolific Spanish director's tendency towards exaggerated melodrama, this examination goes from intriguing to shocking to jaw dropping quite rapidly.
Since much of the power of The Skin I Live In comes from shock value, it's best to go in with as little information as possible. Therefore, in its simplest terms, the setup is ostensibly that experimental plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) develops a new synthetic skin despite contrary regulations. Seemingly intending to use it on burn victims, he experiments on a mysterious woman (Elena Anaya), whom he keeps locked in a room filled with cameras.
Where it goes from this premise is anyone's guess, but it involves chains, suicide, leotards and familial black sheep in cat costumes. As usual, Almodóvar's visual flair and ability to build up a story propel the film in a visceral sense, keeping things engaging for the duration. Every character is deliberately positioned in the frame to maximize flow, acknowledging details such as set design and costume to accentuate the feel of any given moment.
Unfortunately, in this outing, despite crafting a technically apt work, he loses much of the humanity and thoughtful characterizations that make his particular shtick of deliberate convolution touching and memorable. We have some interesting thematic material to work with, such as the extent to which our preoccupation with the surface will take us, but the driving force of the film is excess complex plotting and eventual perversion.
And while it's fascinating to see, the end result is ultimately something hollow and contrived, titillating with little value. (Mongrel Media)