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Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2011

The Skin I Live In

Pedro Almodovar's classic horror show

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The Skin I Live In is Pedro Almodovar's mad-scientist movie, a horror film all the more horrifying for the absence of the computer-generated claptrap of contemporary Hollywood fright fests. A masterful filmmaker and storyteller, the Spanish director easily carries the conventions of Gothic literature into the 21st century and adds a dose of star power.

The mad doctor, Robert Ledgard, is played by steely-eyed Antonio Banderas, who became an international star through Almodovar's early films in the 1980s. Ledgard is a wealthy, prestigious surgeon and medical researcher whose laboratory is located within his castle-like compound on the outskirts of Madrid. The shiny antiseptic surfaces of his workplace are tucked inside the brick-walled dungeons where he claims to be developing artificial skin for face transplants—fields of research that are actually generating excitement in contemporary medical science. However, a sense of unease permeates the depiction of his work and the woman at the focus of his experiments, the mysterious Vera (Elena Anaya). Perhaps Ledgard is transgressing the rules by deriving skin grafts from living animals? And maybe something more than ordinary issues of bioethics is transpiring within the castle walls?

Vera is locked up, fed from trays on a dumbwaiter and kept under constant security camera surveillance by the doctor's faithful servant, Marilia (Marisa Paredes). Ledgard watches Vera on a large flat-screen from his bedchamber, as she reclines on her divan like an odalisque in a 19th-century painting. Vera has tried suicide, but then presses herself onto Ledgard, whose reconstruction of her face has resulted in a startling resemblance to his wife, burned beyond recognition in a car crash, and his agoraphobic daughter. Both women in his life died of suicide under shocking circumstances. Is Ledgard trying to recreate Vera according to his feminine ideal, like Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo but with a scalpel?

Almodovar's gorgeous cinematography brings beauty even to underground parking garages and crimson clouds of blood observed under Ledgard's microscope. The moody orchestral score conjures the ghosts of Alfred Hitchcock's favorite musical collaborator, Bernard Herrmann, and the film has a touch of Hitchcock (as well as a nod to a 1960 film about a similar experiment in reconstructive surgery, Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face). Almodovar's love of operatic melodrama, raised to a pitch Puccini might have found embarrassing, presses against the cool surfaces of his classic Hollywood influences. Under his calm, detached façade, Ledgard is a raging maniac on a perilous vendetta—one with an understandable explanation, if insufficient justification. As in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the monster created by science becomes the sympathetic figure, not the scientist in the lab.

The Skin I Live In
opens Nov. 11 at the Oriental Theatre.
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