Movie Review: “The Skin I Live In”

Written by Melissa MacAulay December 06, 2011

Not a film for those who value a good night’s sleep…

The Skin I Live In (Spanish title: La piel que habito) is a Spanish film which premiered back in May of this year. While making its re-debut at the local cinema, I was finally drawn in by the sheer mysteriousness of the film’s trailer. What do the following things have in common: Antonio Benderas as a mad scientist, a woman running around in a bodysuit, lots of guns, and skin growing in petri dishes? Even after seeing this film, I’m not sure if I can tell you.

The beginning of the film is a somewhat unpleasant combination of creepy characters, cheesy over-dramatic writing, mad-scientist clichés, and general confusion. Having lost his wife to severe burns from a car crash, surgeon Robert Ledgard (Banderas) has figured out how to grow a type of skin that is impervious to burns. Although he claims to be carrying out his research on mice, he is in fact holding a human subject captive at a research facility on his private estate in Toledo, with the help of his quasi-mother, Marilia (Marisa Paredes).

The subject, Vera (Elena Anaya), lives under constant video surveillance, and is forced to undergo regular skin-graft procedures using Robert’s newly developed super-skin. If all of this isn’t unsettling enough for you, it will be once the bombardment of blood and sexual violence begins. In all seriousness, if you are sensitive to images of sexual violence, you may want to steer clear of this film.

By the point where the tiger-suit enters the scene, I had nearly lost all hope for this film. It was simply getting too weird – and for me, that is saying a lot. Gradually, however, I became absorbed by the twisted story behind this creepy-as-all-hell captive situation, which is told using flashbacks. As the story unfolds, the confusion clears. With each twist, however, things get even more disturbing. I wouldn’t dare give away any of these plot developments here; the value of the film lies primarily in its storytelling. I will guarantee, however, that this story will shock and appall you. (That is, unless you are one seriously disturbed individual.)

The film is based on a novel called Tarantula (French title: Mygale) by author Thierry Jonquet. Although I haven’t read the novel, I can only imagine that it is nearly every bit as twisted as the film. Director Almodóvar creates a unique mish-mash of drama, horror, sci-fi, and psychological thriller. Banderas seems to easily satisfy the demands of these genres all at once.

Robert the scientist is perhaps too much of a cliché. Impassioned by the loss of his wife, he obsessively meddles with test-tubes, microscope slides, and mysterious-looking Jurassic Park-esque contraptions overflowing with liquid nitrogen. Robert the father/husband figure is slightly less conventional; bitter with grief, he executes his revenge calmly, coolly, and without any indication of conscience. The cool-headedness with which Robert carries out his research adds considerably to the creep-factor of the film.

It is Anaya, however, who I believe gives the film’s best performance. …. Back and forth between hatred and desperation on one hand, and a sort of unquestioning trust in her captor on the other, Vera’s character is at first completely perplexing. Through learning her story, however, the audience comes to see her character under various new lights. She is at times the victim, at times the villain, and at times the hero. In fact, the same can be said for nearly every character in this film.

One element of the film that I was thoroughly impressed with – perhaps even the most impressed with – was the soundtrack. Even when this film is at its most dubiously weirdest, composer Alberto Iglesias manages to make that weirdness intriguing and beautiful (Exhibit A: the trailer embedded above) Recurring musical themes serve to once again raise the creep-factor to unknown heights – but without the added effect of making me want to curl up in the fetal position under my seat.

The film also features some beautiful images that are both utterly bizarre and yet somehow insightful. One of the most memorable scenes for me is an indignant and desperate Vera, tearing an assortment of floral dresses (provided to her by her captors) into bits, scattering the fragments of beautiful fabric around the floor, and sucking them up, one by one, with a vacuum.

In the end, despite my many initial reservations, I quite enjoyed this film. Although it is quite disturbing (on many, many levels), I felt that this was much more than a mere attempt to creep people out. This film seems to have something real to say about sexual identity, gender, and the human need for revenge. What that something is, however, I’m still not sure.

My Rating: 7.5/10


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About Melissa MacAulay

Melissa MacAulay

Melissa is a PhD student in philosophy. When she is not busy publishing wildly successful books and making earth-shattering contributions to her field, she enjoys travelling, eating chocolate, playing with pugs, and writing film reviews.

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