Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Oct 12, 2011 7:19 am 
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Beautiful surfaces

"Austere" is how Almodóvar describes the style he strove for in his new film, The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito) whose story of an unscrupulous plastic surgeon who creates a forced sex change to simultaneously "replace" his lost wife and avenge the rape of his daughter evokes B-horror. "Austere" may sound pretty ironic given the lush beauty of the images, the intensity of the music, the rich, beautifully lit sets, and the handsome actors elegantly dressed by Paco Delgado, working with Jean Paul Gaultier. But in this film, whose screenplay is adapted from Mygale, a noir novel by the French writer Thierry Jonquet, Almodóvar does hold back a measure of his usual humor, jaunty color, and over-the-top campiness. Although there are moments, as when a husky man in a cat suit bares his ass for a surveillance camera so his mother will recognize him, that are absurd and funny. Antonio Banderas, who starred in the director's earliest films, is back, at 51, looking every inch the glossy but slightly over-the-hill B-picture leading man and exercising impeccable restraint as the evil co-protagonist.

"Strange," "twisted," and "surreal" are words that have been applied to Jonquet's novel. Almodóvar has beautifully elaborated and elucidated that original and removed some of the rougher and more poignant elements. As he retells it, the tale gradually reveals its secrets so the revelations are satisfying rather than surprising and odd rather than moving, though the film's images themselves at times provide an exquisite pleasure. Jonquet's very short novel is ingeniously plotted. At the heart of it, as retold here, is a beautiful woman who is kept prisoner and who hates her victimizer but somehow cannot break away from him. It's a gender-bending sado-masochistic tale. A plastic surgeon loses his wife in a car accident in which she is terribly burned. She lives a while, but as her doctor husband is trying to save her, sees her charred, mutilated skin in a mirror and is so horrified she throws herself out the window. A daughter, psychologically delicate, is raped by a young man at a party where they are both high on drugs, hers medicinal, his recreational. She subsequently goes mad and throws herself out the window too. The young rapist works with puppets and with women's dresses and has a feminine side. The doctor kidnaps him and over a six-year period, transforms him into a beautiful woman who resembles his lost wife -- and has a skin that is impervious to fire. Needless to say, the relationship between doctor and imprisoned patient is uncomfortable, and it becomes strangely ambivalent.

The theme is one in which personality is seen as not tied to gender. Nor, evidently, is film quality tied to genre, since Almodóvar is evoking trashy Hollywood film but adding a high-art gloss. As Amy Taubin has written in Art Forum, Skin "effortlessly synthesizes the mad-scientist horror flick; a contemporary resetting of a nineteenth-century grand opera narrative (motored by the desire for revenge and filled with dark family secrets); and the most perverse strain of the Hollywood 'Woman's Picture,' where the heroines are wrongly imprisoned in insane asylums or hospitals and treated as sadistically as lab rats."

The director may see himself as a kind of Dr. Frankenstein himself, and also as a Pygmalia

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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