There Will Never Be Another You
Pedro Almodóvar’s face and films are as much regulars at the New York Film Festival as any. A little slimmer this year, he, Antonio Banderas and Elena Anaya accompanied their “Gala Screening” The Skin I Live In/La piel que habito.
The gregarious director/co-writer (with co-producer brother Agustín) certainly way outtalked the two actors and admitted that, adapted from Thierry Jonquet’s novel Tarantula/Mygale, this film is a departure from his usual, “quite new, I have closed the Hollywood era.” But not entirely so, for the question of individual identity has been a constant in his output. Certainly sexual identity here, although familial ties are strongly important, and with the emphasis of the last three words spoken after just short of two hours. Essence, it seems, is interior in contradistinction to outward forms and changes. Nurture to be sure, it is also very much nature, genetic, in the blood, as housekeeper Marilia (Marisa Paredes) laments the “insanity in my entrails” passed on to her two dissimilar yet similar sons by different fathers.
Sexo va sexo viene, sex comes and goes, but who or what one is, remains.
Discarded early on was the idea of doing this as a black-and-white silent with printed titles. Art direction, costuming and cinematography (José Luis Alcaine) are in the Manchegan’s mold: spare modern, sharp, brightly colored. The exceptions are on the lined b&w security-camera screens, “we are watched and we watch,” which surveil the walled El Cigarral estate of regarded plastic surgeon Dr. Robert Ledgard (Banderas).
His operations are performed there, and also his research and experiments into creating and grafting a new type of (feminine) skin. The horrified president of the medical association (José Luis Gómez) orders a halt to such rumored tampering, bio-unethical and illegal. The doctor accedes but continues his unholy studies in secret. This is not Frankenstein or any of thousands of such celluloid stories, some gory some (like this) not. Yet for all its pretensions and allusions, it is a retread: brilliant man of science maddened by tragedy and out to correct Nature for some theoretical benefit and/or for vengeance.
With much flashing back, forward and sideways, galloping inconsistencies arise in time, place, action and persons, and it is not until late that the reasons for, the goals of, the project are relatively clarified. They involve Brazil (most indirectly), husband and wife, mother and daughter, father and daughter, mothers and sons, insanity and suicide, recreational drugs and rape, infidelity and flight, a car crash, revenge, a scientific construct that morphs into lover-wife. Frankenstein, remember, is Mary Shelley’s doctor and not his creature, so the bride of Frankenstein is unconsciously here in SILI, as well as the novel’s concern with the responsibility of Prometheus-God-scientist-parent to His creation-offspring.
As emerges from the hodgepodge, Ledgard is not finally out to save his horribly disfigured wife as publicity states, for she has jumped to her death in front of daughter Norma (Blanca Suárez), who becomes unbalanced and, later violated, follows her mother out a window.
Vera (Anaya), who identifies herself as Vera Cruz -- True Cross -- is locked upstairs in a room covered with her writing over six years. The face of this yoga practitioner is lovely. But from toe- and fingertips to neck she is also locked within a flesh-colored bodysuit. Impatient but seemingly accepting, she does not flee when later opportunities arise, plots unnecessarily roundabout retaliation, and has had some relationship (impossible, if the tale is dissected) with Zeca (Roberto Álamo), a scarred criminal in carnival tiger getup who has yet other relationships with the hermetic household.
Mentioned so perfunctorily as to be overlooked, young people have disappeared over time. It is not hard to guess who has used their parts and skin, though the only one of film importance is Vicente Guillén, (Jan Cornet), who wants to leave, anyway, to escape boredom working with lesbian Cristina (Bárbara Lennie) in his mother’s (Susi Sánchez) dress shop.
Banderas is stone-faced throughout, though intended or not audience titters came with his “vaginiplasty,” size-graded “dilators” and more. His doctor grafts skin; Almodóver would graft his vision onto a hoary genre but it does not take. Neither horror film, spoof, nor social commentary, The Skin I Live In wanders in limbo, unsure of what its own essence is.
(Released by Sony Pictures Classics in Spanish with English subtitles and rated “R” for disturbing violent content, including sexual assault, strong sexuality, graphic nudity, drug use and language.)