I’ve written about The Skin I Live In prior on the Nightmare Shift, but that seven years ago. Back then, we weren’t the Nightmare Shift, as a matter of fact, off hand, I don’t even know what we were called. Since then, I have made the decision to revisit films I feel my opinion might have changed on. The Skin I Live In is a film I have had in the back of my mind for a while, knowing someday I would have to sit-down and reorganize my thoughts about it.
Pedro Almodovar helms The Skin I Live In as the film’s director, a name attached I can’t say I recognize at all. Although my palate as a film connoisseur has expanded and reached out, I can’t say I recognize even a single film from his filmography. If you’re in the same boat, don’t fret, however. Pedro is a Spanish filmmaker whose participation in the horror genre are scarce at best (a lot of dramas with a sexual component, which makes sense after you’ve seen this film). For many of you, the addition of Antonio Banderas is likely the most familiar aspect about the film. The cast also includes Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes, Jan Cornet, and Roberto Alamo (his last name should be easy enough to remember). The film is based on a 1984 French novel by Thierry Jonquet called Mygale, later published in English as Tarantula. Although many of you might recognize Antonio Banderas and might really like him as an actor, I would imagine for most of you it’s the concept for The Skin I Live In that has your eye.
I have been apprehensive about how to write a proper preview for this film. In general, I never want to spoil a film for anyone, and yet, I feel like if you knew the finer details about the film, you would be more interested in it. The Skin I Live In is about a gifted plastic surgeon named Robert, played by Antonio Banderas, whose life has been turned upside down, plagued by one tragedy after the next. He soon decides to extract revenge, targeting the person responsible for assaulting his daughter, weaving a very peculiar and eccentric tale of retribution and obsession.
Similar to, perhaps, Oldboy or I Saw the Devil, but in a very different way (and in Spanish, not Korean), The Skin I Live In is harsh, unrelenting, and bold. Even after having seen the film before, I could not help but be caught off-guard by its audacity.
Although Banderas has certainly appeared in harsher, more unrelenting roles prior, like Robert Rodriguez’s Mexico Trilogy, but I’ve always associated him more with his softer, playful roles, as in Spy Kids or Zorro. As it turns out, seeing him as the crazed, intimidating surgeon in The Skin I Live In is very similar, but with a couple tweaks, and, for what it’s worth, it’s very effective. He remains soft spoken, but there is black in his eyes, offering a colder, distant mystique that seems natural. Elena Anaya is tasked with a more interesting challenge, one I’d imagine is arduous indeed, portraying the role of Vera, whose backstory offers more balls to juggle (or less, if you’ve seen the film).
The dynamic between Vera and Robert is what carries the film and is what I am invested in. Every time I see them interact, I am mesmerized by the mind-games that unfold. I am caught off-guard by what they do, and I am uncertain of how I am meant to feel. This is a feel that cares little for your comforts, and, personally, I am all for seeing such experimental, divisive subject matter on the screen.
Unfortunately, some other dynamics muddy the water a bit. One of Robert’s servants Marilia is brought into the fray, spawning an uninteresting, off-putting subplot with her estranged son Zeca that feels like something out of a grotesque, gratuitous soap-opera (from what I’ve been told, such melodrama is the director’s bread-and-butter). This aspect of the film is of substantial detriment. This film clocks out at 120 minutes and I can’t help but think this entire segment could have been cut entirely. It is not that I want the film to be shorter, but that I want more development with Vera and Robert’s relationship. Likewise, I can’t help but think the film should have been situated differently. The Skin I Live In does a lot of jumping between timeline, and I don’t think it truly benefits the film in a substantive way. The reveal isn’t shocking, per se, as it feels it is progressively being established, and so, I think the film would have benefited from a traditional start, middle, and an end. I think the storyline itself is weighty enough and interesting enough to carry it without any tricks or scrambling.
The Skin I Live In is shot very well. The camerawork is as clean as the surgeon’s utensils, and there is an attention to detail on the sound-work and cinematography. In spite its occasional plunders into campier ground, it offers real ground for discussion on identity, gender, sex, and, of course, the obsessive tendencies that bind the conflict together. Antonio Banderas portrays his role as the debonair surgeon with a quiet intensity, and Elena Anaya captures her own mystique. The film, however, does not achieve its high-concept potential because of the interruptions spoiling the broth.
When I first watched The Skin I Live In, I offered it a 2 out of 5 star scoring, highlighting a lot of the same praises and criticisms I have now over half a decade later. In spite of that, I found a new appreciation for the film, appreciating its boldness and the fearless way it tackles unexplored terrain in cinema. Even if it remains something shy of what I think it could have been, what The Skin I Live In amounts to is a film worth a recommendation.