Review: The Skin I Live In (2011, Almodovar)


Pedro Almodóvar made a horror film? Oh the possibilities! Well, apparently not. The Skin I Live In feels like any other Almodóvar film, which is always a great thing, but in this case is also a bad thing, and it culminates as a missed opportunity. You can expect all the delicious goodies that one of his outings has to offer; a film entirely dependent on melodrama complete with plot twists, interweaving storylines, time jumps, stylish pop-infused décor, lustful sexual exploits and themes of obsession, desire, fate and identity. It is all there in spades. This work may be able to shed the absolutely inconsequential Broken Embraces, but it does not quite qualify as top-tier Almodóvar by any means.

I fully admit I may just hold the director up to the impossible standards that he has set for himself. That he accomplished one of the great directorial streaks in film history with All About My Mother, Talk to Her, Bad Education  and Volver can account for that. Hell, I would even throw 1997’s Live Flesh into that streak, his most underrated output. The Skin I Live In is a largely missed opportunity, where the groundwork for a great film lays (and certainly pops up from time to time within the finished product), but it never reaches that level of success we come to expect from him.

A review for this is nearly impossible without going into spoilers, and indeed an insightful dive into the inner workings of the picture will be largely avoided in reviews marking its theatrical release (including mine). When enough time passes to be able to really get into the thick of it, the meaningful analysis of the film will really come into play. For now, reviews can only be vague. This will sound like a largely negative review when it is not meant to be. This is because what I loved about the film almost entirely involves a reveal that radically alters audience perspective. I will not be divulging it here, but it is the resulting thematic implications that make up my admiration.

The basic plot involves an innovative plastic surgeon (Antonio Banderas) who has a kept woman (Elena Cruz) in his house against her will. The audience enters this situation in media res, of what looks like a dynamic that is years into its existence. The film starts out vague and eventually falls into a flashback which explains the circumstances of the why, when and how it all came to be.

A big reason the unmentioned reveal works, despite being able to figure it out before its disclosure, is because it lends some much needed layers to the proceedings. The first third is meant litter the audience with questions; to hook us into wanting to know what is going on, and how this situation that has clearly been normalized by the characters, came to be. That element of intrigue never grows organically out of these scenes and they misuse critical time that could have been spent truly grabbing the audience and establishing meaningful characterization. With that, the film gets off to a rickety start.

An example of a scene that does not do what it could is a set-piece that takes place about half an hour in. Marisa Paredes plays a shady matriarchal figure (in what could have been a much juicier role for one of the filmmaker’s great regulars) whose son Zeca (Roberto Alamo) pays her an unexpected visit. Without giving anything away, the way this scene plays out should have slowly ratcheted suspense before giving way to the set-up’s conclusion. It could have had the audience on the edge of their seats akin to the opening scene inInglourious Basterds (not to insist that the set-piece should have been exactly like that, but it provides an example of a situation that slowly reveals itself simultaneously to the audience and characters and finds suspense through that alliance). Instead, the scene, while interesting, just sort of plays out without reaching that sense of suspense that it clearly means to have.

Another major factor of disappointment is the way it essentially wastes former male muse Antonio Banderas. Granted, to see him back in action with the Spanish director that helped catapult his career back in the day is an unbridled joy. Banderas was always usually given darker characters to play in their collaborations and this case is no different. The actor does a wonderful job with what he is given to work with, but unfortunately it is not much. His character somehow gets lost amidst everything and we never get a sense of him. His actions suggest some potentially incredible characterization but the filmmaker never goes there. Banderas’ more than capable star presence is depended upon too much to carry his character through.

If only Pedro Almodóvar had stepped outside of his comfort zone a bit. His aesthetic will always be a feast for the eyes and will more than carry its weight in worth and skill. But there is a twinge of sadness that he did not branch out even slightly within the horror territory. In fact, The Skin I Live In hardly even feels like a horror film. For some this will be a great thing, showcasing how he can make any kind of material his own. That is fine, and without having hoped for something too dissimilar, I still was optimistic for a fusion between melodrama and horror that does not exist here.

There is a lot to admire here, and even a disappointing film by this director is more than worth seeing. Elena Anaya as Vera Cruz give a smashing performance in a really difficult part as she emotes through her self-consciously porcelain beauty. The sharp use of strings in Albert Iglesias’ score is perfection and perfectly in tone with the film. He uses a different sound that evokes “Twin Peaks” during a fabulous scene featuring windy back roads (this is the music used in the trailers). The way Almodóvar uses nudity and sexual assault are unprecedentedly remarkable. It is thematically rich and on that level has a lot going on and does not disappoint. It is sprinkled with greatness throughout despite missing the mark as a whole.

In many ways, it demands one sees it twice. A film should be able to carry its weighty impact on a first viewing, but it almost feels like there cannot be a true assessment on general thoughts without seeing it again. In fact, it is probable that the film would mean more if one knows what is going on and I fully acknowledge that.

Despite its misgivings, the film holds throughout, goes to some pretty fantastically implicit territory and features the filmmakers’ reliable skill level. A lot of expectation comes with a Pedro Almodóvar film and he falls short here of creating a great work, though inklings of it can be seen. Ultimately The Skin I Live In feels somewhat hollow; too obsessed with surface beauty to get under the skin of the title, and into the meat of things.

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10 thoughts on “Review: The Skin I Live In (2011, Almodovar)

  1. Alright, I’m going to ask you to give me an assignment. I’ve never seen any of Almodovar’s films. Which two should I start with? I do want to see this one, especially after reading this. Since I haven’t seen anything else by him, I bet I would like this quite a bit more than you. But I’d still rather hear from you where I should start.

  2. Ooooh, an difficult assignment! I’m so happy you’ve asked me. Hmmm…I’m really tempted to say Talk to Her because it’s my favorite from him but I think it’s maybe better to focus on what he can do with female casts and genre first. So I’ll go with Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Volver. They represent different time periods in his work. Both have really memorable ensemble female casts. ‘Women’ is an all-out comedy. Volver shows how he’s been able to mix and play with a variety of genres over the years with melodrama at the forefront. Carmen Maura, an Almodovar regular in the early days, had a fallout with him after ‘Women’ and Volver was the first film of his since then that she had appeared in; so that’s another connection between the two. They are two films that, if you don’t like, he might not be your thing. If that ends up being the case I’d still definitely see Talk to Her, Bad Education, The Skin I Live In and try out his earlier darker material like Matador because they represent different facets in his work that you might end up being more interested in. I hope you enjoy and keep me updated with what you end up watching and what you think of them! : )

  3. Nostra says:

    Hadn’t seen any of his other movies, but really liked this movie. It’s so shocking and like you say manages to only setup questions for the audience in the beginning and once you get the answers you become more more uncomfortable.

    1. I agree that the answers to those questions make you more and more uncomfortable. That is what I loved about it; the implications of the twist make the film rich in a lot of regards. For me personally, the way he set up the questions was not very engaging. I think those establishing scenes could have been used to do more. But again, the revelations worked so well and it really added so much to it all.

  4. So it would appear as though I liked this movie a lot more than you, but I think we can both agree that even “high-andoutside” Almodovar is better than many directors get when they are able to throw one right over the plate.

    You alude to eventual rewatch, and having seen it twice now, i can tell you that the rewatch is actually pretty darned cool since vague allusions made between Robert and Marillia become far clearer, as does how much he is squirming in those discussions about ethics.

    Alas, when a director like ALmodovar is competing against himself, it can be difficult to clear the bar of expectations.

    Great review!

    1. Thank you very much!

      I will definitely rewatch the film at some point. It’s good to hear from someone who has seen it twice and what stands out on revisiting it. It sounds like a bit more can be taken from Banderas’ character as well as hidden meanings in those early scenes between him and Anaya.

      “Alas, when a director like ALmodovar is competing against himself, it can be difficult to clear the bar of expectations.”

      I know! I feel it’s a bit unfair that I do that, but it happens with the best of them; expectations they set up because of their greatest accomplishments. And even though I had a lot of issues with the film, you are right that even a lesser (in my opinion) work of his brings a lot to the table both with discussion and just how worthy it is of being watched and devoured on multiple occasions. : )

  5. This is a great review, and I agree with you on the missed opportunity re: moving out of his comfort zone. I agree with your assessment that Almodovar does all the things he does so well, yet he could have done even more. I’m still wrapping my head around exactly how I feel and I definitely believe I need a second viewing. I’m sure my thoughts will come more clearly when I sit down and start writing something up.

  6. Thank you!!! <33 I'm replying here because I'll get a little spoilery and didn't want to bring that to twitter. Honestly, the film became interesting to me once we hit the flashback and then once we hit upon the reveal. And while it really enriched everything for me, it still felt like a missed opportunity. So much so that the underwhelming feeling I had was distracting me. I don't know if you had that feeling during it but I couldn't shake it : ( I do think I'd get more out of it seeing it again (even the picture I chose means a lot more to me know whereas during the film her expression didn't mean much to me). But I also think most of my issues with it would stay the same. It's just that the implications of Banderas' actions towards her are so unbelievably fascinating and Almodovar never explores it. And I just don't get that. It's like digging up a pile of gold and then leaving the gold there and walking away. He just falls back into his plot devices and sidesteps what could have been really revelatory character work. That scene when he sideswipes Christian;s motorcycle with him in the mask and just the atmosphere of it was what I was hoping from him but throughout the entire film. I just love the feel of that scene and how it plays out and it was recognizably him but something a bit new. I was really disappointed on that front as well.

    I do absolutely love the final scene though. Like a lot. Even though it reminds me a bit too much of the last scene of Talk to Her with that 'where do we go from here' feel, it worked for me.

  7. Yes, that’s exactly what I’m attempting t work through — the fact that some much of Banderas’ motivations/reactions are left unexplored. I have issues with that. As soon as we hit the flashback I did feel as though my interest seriously picked up and I think he did a great job in engaging the audience and making them active participants rather than passive viewers but — I just feel he could have presented it even deeper, worked through the complexity of Banderas’ motivations/goals/eventual feelings.

  8. Exactly. Like I said, the film just swallows him up and it’s a shame. Once we hit the reveal I thought to myself “surely we will go back and figure out where he is coming from and what changed for him or we’ll get a sense of what’s going through his head…surely….” and then we don’t and it’s like ‘what!?!?!’. Why? I mean it’s challenging work to execute something like that and I’m saddened he didn’t try to give us something on that front. That aspect of it left me to underwhelmed and his character is such a huge part of the film. But I completely agree that the viewing experience changes from passive to active at that point and the transition works well; but I wish has had given us more to feast upon within the characters and he just missed the mark on that front.

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