Sunday, July 1, 2012

Doctor, Doctor, Gimme the News

Film: La Piel Que Habito (The Skin I Live In)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player.

I love a good horror movie, but I’m the first to admit that medical stuff squicks me. It’s something I’ve certainly mentioned here in the past and will no doubt mention again. Surgical stuff bugs me far more than standard gore. I’m not 100% sure why this is the case, but it most certainly is. I can watch a guy get torn apart by zombies or cut in half by a creature from hell, but show me a scalpel and a surgical mask and I start to get nervous. So it was not without a certain amount of trepidation that I put La Piel Que Habito (The Skin I Live In) into the spinner. I knew there would be things here that bothered me, but when I’m given a film to watch for The Demented Podcast, I watch.

I knew something of the film going in, and from the sound of it, it called up recollections of Georges Franju’s Les Yeux Sans Visage, at least on the surface. I was right in that guess—the two films are similar in some ways, and the word is that Pedro Almodovar took some of his inspiration from the older film.

Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) has been working on a new type of synthetic skin for burn patients. The skin is tough, designed to resist burning and to essentially be impervious to cutting and insect bites. It is revealed that to do this, Ledgard has spliced genetic material from pigs into the artificial skin, which goes directly against medical ethics. He is told to shut down his experiments. What Ledgard isn’t telling the rest of the medical community is that he’s been experimenting with the skin on a captive patient named Vera (Elena Anaya).

Back home, Ledgard dismisses his servants except for Marilia (Marisa Paredes), who has been with him for most of his life. Marilia has her own demons and secrets, it turns out. One day while Robert is out, Marilia’s criminal son Zeca (Roberto Alamo) arrives at the house. He is on the run from the authorities because his face appears distinctly in the surveillance video of his latest robbery. Since Dr. Ledgard’s house is secluded, he wants to stay there for a few days, but we learn that there is some history between him and Ledgard. Suddenly, this doesn’t matter to Zeca—he becomes aware of Vera’s presence and appears to recognize her. Consumed by lust, he ties up his mother, charges up the stairs, and rapes her. Ledgard arrives post coital and shoots him.

In the aftermath, we learn a bit more. We learn that Robert Ledgard is also Marilia’s son. Zeca was her son with another servant while Robert was her son with her employer. He was taken into the Ledgard family while Zeca essentially became a criminal. It’s here also that we learn of what drives Ledgard in his quest to perfect his synthetic skin. Evidently, Zeca came upon Ledgard’s family and took a shine to his wife, and the feeling was mutual. She ran off with Zeca, but one terrible car accident later left her seriously burned. Eventually, she committed suicide by jumping out a window.

We also learn that Ledgard had a daughter named Norma (Ana Mena) who suffered from a variety of social phobias no doubt helped along by her witnessing her mother’s death. Just coming out of her problems, Norma attended a wedding where she met a dressmaker named Vicente (Jan Cornet). The two run off to the garden, but she has second thoughts in the middle and freaks out. Vicente knocks her unconscious, and when she recovers, she has mentally gone to hell, eventually following her mother out the window to her death.

This covers about the first half of the movie. Yes, the first half. The significant twist is revealed just after this (and when I call this a significant twist, I am underselling it more than you can possibly know unless you’ve seen the film). I will not continue describing the film’s plot after this point, because the twist is so surreal that it should never be spoiled. It’s too bizarre, too insane to have it ruined.

Almodovar’s films are unique in the industry in a lot of ways. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that in general he makes films that appeal mainly to women, or at least on the surface seem to be women’s films. This isn’t to say that men can’t enjoy them; I’ve liked the Almodovar films I’ve seen despite them being very much geared toward women. His films are difficult and address a number of difficult issues, so I’m not attempting to denigrate them by calling them women’s films. Almodovar doesn’t make dippy little rom-coms. His films are real and realistic, although this one skirts that edge. For much of his career, Almodovar has made intense dramas geared toward women. In this case, he’s made a horror/thriller film with more feminine sensibilities.

I’ll leave it here: I didn’t foresee where this film was going to go. It’s twisted and sick, and I enjoyed the hell out of it despite spending a good 20 minutes or so cringing at it. Almodovar maintains great control over his camera as well as a complicated story. While much of the first hour is shrouded in mystery, the entire thing becomes completely clear and everything that has transpired makes sense. This is a smart film and one I am happy to have seen. I haven’t seen all of Almodovar’s films yet, but he’ll have to have pulled out a great one to top this.

Good choice, Nick.

Why to watch La Piel Que Habito: Almodovar goes creepy in spades.
Why not to watch: If you are remotely squeamish, you won’t go much past half way through.


  1. Whoo! Yeah, you already know my thoughts on this one.

  2. This film was freaky. Ledgard was probably the best and most eerie villain of last year. It looked amazing though.

  3. Medical stuff squicks me too :/ I really do want to see this though, and it looks absolutely disturbing. All that story in the first half? Wow! Great write up though!

  4. This film was my number 2 in 2011, with only Never Let Me Go above it.

    It was sick and sickening but I loved it. I had avoid spoilers so I had absolutely no idea of where it was going.

  5. I saw it almost 9 months ago or so, but I am still really disturbed about it. In general, in almost every Almodovar movie I have a problem understanding the morality of it and this movie was no exception either.

  6. I really liked The Skin I Live In, despite the story being a bit freaky and disturbing. Is unusual for a film to be both arty and suspenseful. It’s not for everyone, but was definitely very interesting. Kind of a Frankenstein for our generation!

  7. Frankenstein for our generation--I like that. I like it better than giving that nod to Splice at the very least.

    I love the number of people here and in my walking around life who react to this film with comments like "It was so nasty and I loved it." This is a movie not to have spoiled--if you haven't seen it, do so with no more information than you have here. Really.

  8. Excellent review of a truly unique movie. I thought this was one of the best, most twisted flicks from last year. Thanks for not revealing that big twist for unaware readers, that thing is just too damn good to be spoiled in print!

    1. I completely agree. Some films don't warrant the extra caution, but this one...that twist is such a gut punch that it should never be ruined.

  9. I first saw Banderas in a couple of Almodovar films - Tie Me Up Tie Me Down and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. When he transitioned to English language films he seemed to end up being cast as the action hero or comic relief. I was glad to see in The Skin I Live In that Banderas still had some acting chops in him. I feel this was his best performance in years. Reuniting with Almodovar was definitely a good thing. (See also: Penelope Cruz)

    As for Elena Anaya - can you get a more beautiful face, especially in the close ups the doctor is obsessing over?

    I completely agree that the twist should not be spoiled, but it can be figured out ahead of time from clues in the film. I've been told I'm "not normal" when it comes to figuring movies out ahead of time, though. I had the right answer among several possibilities early on, and when the movie got into the flashback I knew it could only be the one that it ended up being. Having seen several Almodovar films I may have been more used to the fact that he can go to some really strange places.

    1. I completely agree on Banderas. He's tremendous in this, and it's instructive to remember that he's got a lot of talent behind the looks and suave accent. Ditto for Cruz--she's my main movie crush these days, and part of that is her talent. I love her in Almodovar movies. But Elena Anaya would be a good substitute. Not just beautiful, but she's brilliant in this film.

      Right now, this is my favorite Almodovar. I like Volver, too, but mostly that's for Penelope Cruz.

    2. I finally saw Volver literally twelve hours ago even though I've owned the DVD since it came out. I liked the film quite a bit, but I would probably pick All About My Mother as my favorite Almodovar film. Talk to Her was also very good.

    3. I've seen All About My Mother and I liked it, but it's a difficult film to enjoy. It's one terrible event away from making me want to slit my own wrists. Talk to Her is coming up for me.