Program Notes: The Skin I Live In (2011)

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The Skin I Live In is one spectacularly sick movie.

This heady mashup of mad scientist horror story, sexual fantasy, revenge yarn, and existential escape caper shows Spanish writer/director Pedro Almodóvar indulging numerous of his well-documented obsessions.

The resulting film is simultaneously creepy and beautiful. Think of it as a less offensive (but equally disturbing) Human Centipede for the art house crowd.

Vera (Elena Anaya) is the only patient in a private clinic in the home of brilliant plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard (Almodóvar stalwart Antonio Banderas).

Vera lives in a hermetically sealed, sterile-looking room. She wears a form-clinging body stocking outfitted with various flaps and zippers so that Robert can examine his handiwork. Clearly, Vera has undergone some major skin grafts.

Film Screening:
The Skin I Live In (2011)
Saturday, Mar. 23 at 2:00 p.m.
Plaza Branch
RSVP now

What tragedy — accident, disease, or birth defect — required such extensive surgery? We don’t know, but the operations have been spectacularly successful, for Elena’s skin is a thing of incredible beauty.

In other aspects her life is troubling. She isn’t allowed out of her room, which is wired with a sophisticated surveillance system. Vera’s only human contact is with Robert and his cook/housekeeper (Marisa Paredes).

Her keepers are thoughtful, kind and nurturing ... but Vera is a prisoner nevertheless.

What’s going on here?

We get the answers in two extensive flashbacks (Almodóvar does love his flashbacks).

In the first we learn about Robert’s early life with a mentally unstable wife and the unhappy fate of his equally troubled teenage daughter (Blanca Suárez), whose sexual exploitation by a young man (Jan Cornet) pushes her into full-blown madness.

The second flashback ... well, let’s not go there, except to say that good doctor Robert goes a bit bonkers, fashioning a revenge that takes full advantage of his unique skill set.

Almodóvar sprinkles his brooding yarn with references to other movies, particularly Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (for parts of the movie Vera wears a creepy plastic mask that protects her skin while it is healing).

The acting here is very good. For once Banderas gets to play a villain, but at least he’s a three-dimensional baddie. The contrast of his suave, seductive exterior with the roiling nutcase inside is especially effective.

Anaya, who has the film’s most challenging role (wish I could explain why, but it would give too much away), seems poised to stake her claim as one of the screen’s most haunting beauties. It almost hurts to gaze upon her, and the camera moves in close like a panting voyeur.

This film eschews Amodóvar’s sometimes snarky humor for a dead-seriousness that only makes the film’s third-act reveal all the more stomach-churning.

Is The Skin I Live In deliciously perverse or just plain nasty?

That, dear moviegoer, you must answer for yourself.

Other films in the series “Almodóvar's Women”

Saturdays at 2:00 p.m.:

 

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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