The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito)

A mad scientist loses his wife in a automobile fire and seeks solace in recreating her appearance on an unwilling victim. Avant-garde cinema or cheesy B-movie plot from the ‘50s and ’60s? Well, why not both, as we see here with Al-muh-DOH-var’s—I assume that’s how you pronounce AlmodóvarThe Skin I Live In. I’m old enough to remember when he still used his first name (Pedro) but this would be the first of his movies that I’ve seen. Like Tarantino, Spike Lee and a few others, I’ve always found the trailers to Pedro’s films sufficiently off-putting that I never felt the need to see his movies. (A reaction I’ve overcome in the last few years with Tarantino, to my everlasting ennui.)

Although it’s not the best fit, I kept thinking about The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, the ’62 potboiler about the scientist who saves his girlfriend’s head after a car crash, then spends the rest of the movie scouting strippers for a new body while she hectors him from a lasagna pan about his lack of ambition and nags him to take out the garbage. (Or something, it’s been a while since I’ve seen it.)

It’s amusing (at least to me) the extent of this movie’s overlap with that older one (and other similar old flicks I’m not remembering at the moment). This is a sleazy film filled with unlikable characters, creepy situations and sexual violence. There are also moments of what today might almost be considered high camp.

When the movie opens, Plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) is presenting on a new kind of transplantable skin mutated from human and pig cells he developed in honor of his broiled wife, after which some of his shocked peers warn him of the consequences should SCIENCE discover his lapse in ethics. (Mutating human and animal stuff is apparently a no-no.) This scene is reprised later on, when one of his formers business partners threatens to blackmail him by outing him to the scientific community.

Interestingly enough, the whole pig-human thing doesn’t really go anywhere. His victim in all this, Vera (the ridiculously beautiful Elena Anaya of Point Blank) doesn’t develop super-powers or get bulletproof skin or anything like that. I thought there was going to be a twist where the science went wrong but the movie plays out straight revenge tragedy, basically.

Not that there isn’t a twist, mind you. Oh, yes, there’s a twist, though I didn’t see it coming until about 10 minutes before it popped.

There are other sorta ’60s things about this movie, too. The color doesn’t used the washed out blue-gray feel that’s so popular (hacky!) today, but a more vibrant one. Not exactly Technicolor but Kodachrome(ish). Antonio Banderas has his hair slicked back and walks around in a tuxedo at one point, evoking a Sean-Connery-as-James-Bond figure that’s amplified when he holds a gun.

In fact, if you listen to the semi-techno song used in the trailer (and also in the movie’s one chase scene), the electric guitar sound is very mid-to-late ’60s. I’m not hitting bulls-eyes today but the ’60s surfin’ classic “Wipeout” comes to mind.

There are no cell phones, computers or modern devices, except for large-screen viewers, which were pretty commonly faked in ’60s movies.

So, what’s not ’60s about it? Well, there’s a lot of nudity and it’s pretty pornographic which wasn’t common in a mainstream, high-budget ’60s flick. It’s not gratuitous, but it is gross. (The nudity isn’t. Did I mention that Elena Anaya is gorgeous?) The sex is done covered or far-away, but it’s still very explicit (and often violent) in terms of the imagery Pedro creates in the viewers’ mind.

I see this movie being fetish-fuel for a small but intense niche.

Overall? We liked it all right. It could’ve been shorter. The Boy found it disturbing but it’s a fool’s errand to try to create much of an impact on the younger generation through shock or transgression. As for myself, I was expecting something bizarre! titillating! shocking! along the typical lines that certain directors endear themselves to certain critics, and I was only put off-guard by the naivete of the genre.

I mean, really: Who makes mad scientist movies any more? In my lifetime, there haven’t been that many. The (speaking of pornographic) Re-animator series, that Peter O’Toole/Mariel Hemmingway oddity from ’85, Creator, sorta—but really, the modern science-gone-awry is more likely to feature a noble, avuncular scientist rather than a mad one. The science goes awry (these days) because of the evil businessman or a tangential individual’s greed.

This movie’s sort of like taking Humanoids from the Deep (where mutated fish-men emerge from polluted water to rape women) or Creature from the Black Lagoon and exploring seriously the potential for relationship between the fish-men and the women they kidnap.

So…odd. Well, done, for the most part. Good acting. The music’s a little heavy-handed. The graphicness is going to be off-putting for some, to say nothing of the indecency. Vera is the closest thing to a hero the movie has, and for reasons that can’t be explained with spoilage, she’s hardly pure.

The Boy said he would have a hard time recommending it, and I tend to agree.

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