Three Imaginary Girls

Seattle's Indie-Pop Press – Music Reviews, Film Reviews, and Big Fun

{The Skin I Live In opened in Seattle on Friday, November 4, and is screening at The Egyptian Theater and Lincoln Square Cinemas}

Horror overtones, debatable black comedy, and maybe a fair amount of yuck/ewwww mash together to create a memorable — if not altogether compelling — mix in the latest film by Pedro Almodóvar. Starring Antonio Banderas and Elena Anaya, the visuals are as luscious and darkly seductive as ever. To some, Almodovar's latest will be a fascinating character study, stuffed with multiple interpretations ranging from sexual identity to how grief can drive you crazy. To others, maybe more a technically-gifted piece of filmmaking that's less emotionally engaging than it could be.

Personally I'm in that latter group. Still worth a look for Almodóvar fans – unless you really want to avoid films about doctors conducting immoral experiments on gorgeous people of indeterminate origin. In which case, stick with Harold & Kumar this weekend. Not that those tastes are mutually exclusive.

There are some people you should not cross, even accidentally. How many are plastic surgeons I won't venture to guess. The Skin I Live In certainly makes a compelling case that the overlap between those populations is particularly scary. The picture is difficult to talk about without spoiling some of the ups and downs, so I will do my best to be especially vague. 

The film starts with a surgeon traumatized by a wife who was burned to death — who's conducting a series of experiments egged on by that trauma. Assisted by a pretty low bar with respect to scruples.  There's a woman locked in a gilded cage and a faithful housekeeper who keeps more secrets than he knows. Plus a fully equipped home surgical theater he spends each evening huddled away in. Hopefully you're getting the point that this isn't for a light night out with a first date. Unless you're a high stakes player. Heck, if you both love it, you might have something worth keeping.

As the film begins, we learn of the woman Banderas has living in a locked room of his estate. Watched constantly by video surveillance, she's a daily part of his life. Why she's there is unclear, but bits begin to reveal themselves slowly. He's doing some cutting edge (and likely unethical) medical research into skin replacement, that we get soon enough. I'd also suggest he's mentally a prisoner of something else that reveals even more slowly.

The picture is consistently beautiful to look at, often in a dark unsettling way. There's the lush Spanish villa where Banderas lives and works part time. The woman locked in a room doing yoga and clad only in a full body stocking. Almodóvar sets up an internal world where staged representations appear to be reality and the real world often appears as to be sporting a mask. Seen quite directly as Banderas views a life sized image of his prisoner on a video monitor as if she was in bed next to him. The film toys with identity, its malleable nature, and the pain suppressing it can cause. There's a beauty is truth line in there somewhere I'm sure – a smarter viewer would see it right away.

The film takes many of the themes Almodóvar has played and makes them extraordinarily literal. It's an interesting picture to watch. Though without a character I really cared about, I never felt properly emotionally invested. The outcomes laid out were certainly horrific for all involved. But my horror felt clinically detached. Though it's got a grown man who appears from nowhere in a tiger costume, and turns out to be related to everyone six ways from Sunday, then proceeds to perpetrate a violent crime of a sexual nature…all without being a large part of the story. So it's certainly not a run of the mill flick.

My issues with the film are rooted more in the script and story than in the actors. Banderas is perfectly cast in this reuinion with Almodóvar. Elena Anaya strongly owns her mysterious character as well.  It wasn't until after the film that I started to remember where I'd seen her before. Amusingly that shred of clothing she wears in The Skin I'm In threw me as I'd seen her last in Room in Rome. Seems I didn't recognize her with so much in the way of clothes on. Thankfully, this was a more engaging turn than in the earlier picture which a SIFF audience member memorably titled the "Bataan Death March of lesbian sex films."

I didn't hate The Skin I'm In. I was just left feeling more flat that I've become used to with Pedro Almodóvar. I always respect films that try to really take chances. This qualifies, given it's beyond unusual path to an optimistic conclusion that maybe you can go home again. Because the right family will accept you regardless of your exterior. If you're a fan of Almador I'm sure you'll want to go. I just can't say it's one of his best.