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La piel que habito

October 27, 2011
La piel que habito

Almodóvar is as idiosyncratic a director as Kafka is a writer; if you haven’t heard the term “Almodóvarian”, you can find no better introduction than La piel que habito. I find it difficult to know what to say in the wake of this experience besides “wow”; it defies easy description. I can’t even pin down quite what the point is without going back and watching it again, which re-viewings I’m confident the film can weather. But here goes, anyway.

Robert Ledgard (Antinio Banderas) is a brilliant plastic surgeon in Toledo, Spain. We see him delivering lectures on medical subjects ranging from facial transplants and reconstructions to recent advances in skin grafts. The latter, we learn, he has been secretly experimenting with, trying to develop a skin which is fireproof and resistant to insect bites. He claims to have been testing on athymic mice, but we see that he’s really working with a young woman named Vera Cruz (Elena Anaya), who he keeps locked up in his isolated mansion — “El Cigarral” — and who he’s made to resemble his wife, who died in a fiery car wreck. Yeah, you can go back and read that over again.

Also living in El Cigarral is the servant, Marilia (Marisa Paredes), who kept the same house for his father before him. This draws her son, Zeca (Roberto Álamo), to the house, dressed as a tiger for Carnival and on the run from the police after a bungled jewelry store robbery. He finds out about Vera — who you’ll recall looks like Robert’s wife — and proceeds to rape her, thinking she really is Robert’s wife, with whom he’d had an affair.

Seriously, these aren’t spoilers; this all happens pretty much right up front, before it gets really weird.

Anyway, after disposing of Zeca, Robert tells Vera she’s “finished”, and she professes her love for him. As they sleep, we go back to learn how they got to this point. We hear the story of Robert’s wife’s death, leading to the trauma of their daughter, Norma (Blanca Suárez). We hear about Norma’s ill-fated encounter with a local pill-popping teen, Vincente (Jan Cornet), and Robert’s lust for revenge. And we hear about Vera’s own mysterious past, and why she’s willingly locked away and subjected to Robert’s medical experiments.

La piel que habito was based on Thierry Jonquet’s novel Mygale — released in English as Tarantula. I’m not sure whether the more confusing aspects of the film were original to the novel, or whether there was a lot left on the cutting-room floor that if included would make the whole story hang together better; there is definitely a sense of much more story being crammed in than two hours can comfortably contain. I can’t say for certain, but reports are that the film’s story diverges pretty radically from the basic outline of the novel, so that’s probably not the definitive explanation. But that’s Almodóvar for you.

For Banderas, though, I can offer unreserved praise. I haven’t seen him this good in years — possibly since his turn as Pancho Villa in a made-for-television movie back in 2003. He and Almodóvar used to work together quite a lot in Spain in the 1980s; maybe this is just what he needed to rediscover his mojo as a leading man.

Worth It: yes, so long as you’re ready for it to not make complete sense at first pass.
Bechdel Test: I’m going to have to say “fail”, though it can be confusing.

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