Eli Roth meets Freud meets Eyes Without A Face
I don't want to start out this review by saying something as stupid as Almodovar is under-rated, because I doubt too many people can compete with the sheer volume of critical praise he has gotten over the years, but I think there's perhaps a vocal group amongst film fans that Almodovar has never really had much luck with. People like me. Young males in between the ages say of 16-25. Not all, but I think many of us don't really get it. Many of my film-loving friends who have time for Tarkovsky, Eisenstein and Gaspar Noe, simply don't for Almodovar. Probably because he makes melodramas. I had a lot of trouble with his work when I was younger, a perennial favorite of the other members of my all female household, I watched many of his films without really seeing the appeal. This is just a Spanish Eastenders with pimped out production design, I would say.
But as I got older I began to see and get why his films work so well. He's continually obsessed with two things, the dark side of sex and, for the most part, the value of family. Common themes, but he seems to go further with them, approach them from darker and smarter perspectives. He makes melodramas, but he makes compelling stories about people, in a particularly singular voice. Families seem to be where the strongest bonds in his fucked up worlds exist, and Volver, which after a pointless thriller plot it disposes of inside of half an hour, is my favorite of his films because it's the most complicated, yet perhaps its the lightest and most hopeful. The performances in his films are always exceptional, and The Skin I Live In does not break this rule. It's also perhaps the most accessible of his films to date, in many ways a straight up Psychological Horror movie that infuses the gender crisis schtick of 60 and 70's horror with our very own torture porn ethos, and comes up with something that while not entirely new (He's clearly seen Eyes Without A Face) is as bold as he's been in quite a while.
I only wish he knew how to structure a damn movie though. He always has pretty great ideas, and in most cases writes compelling characters, but he insists on structuring every single one of his films, no matter what its about, like a bad 90's thriller. With predictable non-linear Flashbacks and scenes of exposition, it seems like something he is truly incapable of mastering. I think The Skin I Live In was actually a lesser offender in this regard then say, Broken Embraces, thanks to a twist that sort of justifies it, but there's way too much awkward and ill-fitting scenes in which you can just feel Almodovar pulling the strings too obviously. Similarly, I think Antonio Banderas' plot-driving psycho was all over the shop, with about ten different motivations, none of which was all that convincing or thoroughly explored. The inconsistency of it is sort of washed over by how good Banderas is, giving certainly one of the best performances of his career. But the movie ultimately won me over when it became Elena Anaya's story as opposed to Banderas'.
I've seen Anaya before, but like so many non-English speaking actors, she is a different actress when she is relieved of the burden of speaking in a foreign dialect and this was some Oscar worthy shit she does here. It's a very difficult role, but she carries it with an extra-ordinary amount of dignity and charisma. Come awards time I expect it will be Banderas who gets all the attention but I think the film finds its feet and its focus thanks to Anaya. The film is also admirable in the way it actually explores the psychological consequences of torture, as opposed to that merely being the point. It's why the best horror movies are always made by non-horror directors, because they are interested in the why so much more. It's not simply about sending people on a ride, it's about forcing them to think about why they are afraid. And when this happens the movie becomes so much more valuable.
Like I say I don't think The Skin I Live In is flawless. Structurally its a mess, particularly in the first half, and I think the Banderas character is written badly and too broadly to be truly compelling beyond a mere boogeyman. But Almodovar exploring that dark sexual psychology he always does finds a perfect home in this film, and it's always fascinating to see a man of has talents try and do something a little different.