Sunday, December 18, 2011

Mhairi Guild: The Skin We Live In -- The Mad, Bad World of Pedro Almodóvar

The skin we live in: the mad, bad world of Pedro Almodóvar

Remaining spooked and preoccupied, Mhairi Guild still appreciates density and creativity of Almodovar's latest grotesque fairytale of not-only-gender identity, desire and power

by Mhairi Guild
The F Word

We staggered out of Pedro Almodóvar's latest offering somewhat shell-shocked. There is a huge amount to get out of The Skin I Live In but goodness, is it profoundly dark. Generally well received, the film has nonetheless split critics, some seeing it as a fetishistic mess or empty stylistic exercise, others as a stunning horror of the mind. I think that your reception of the film is likely to depend on your prior relationship with Almodóvar and on how willing you are to go on this particular journey with him.

A dark alpha male Antonio Banderas plays the brooding, obsessive surgeon Robert Ledgard, bunkered in a grand Toledo mansion which offers a lush set for his initially unexplained experimentation on the beautiful captive Vera, played by the porcelain doll-like Elena Anaya. The perfection of Vera's flawless, synthetic skin and the charged secret of her relationship with Ledgard is the central riddle of a plot that weaves back and forth between earlier stages of the narrative and gradually takes us down to depths scarcely imaginable at the outset.

Despite not being familiar with Almodóvar's whole canon, his 2002 Talk To Her has long been one of my favourite films. I have also enjoyed - in different ways - All About My Mother (1999), Volver (2006) and some earlier works like 1990 Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (his last project with Banderas before the latter's defection to Hollywood).

One of the most striking things about The skin I live in is how it pulls together tropes and preoccupations from a number of the director's past films - being a sort of culmination of Almodóvar's body of work. A few of these themes were particularly resonant as the story developed.

Firstly, in Almodóvar's world there is normally an inherent brutality to the male sexual impulse, and it is present to such an extent that I was already squirming uncomfortably within the first half an hour of the film (little was I to know what Almodóvar had in store for me yet). The representation and frequent victory of this type of male sexuality, which is oft accompanied by casual violence, suggests that it is somehow a 'true' manifestation of male sexuality. Together with a forceful masculine possession of the female body, his male characters often exhibit an unreflective ignorance of the coercion present in their seductions. In the three central male figures in the film we get the full bleak spectrum: the boy (Vicente), the man (Ledgard) and the animal (Veco - the 'Tiger'). In this film Almodóvar more than insinuates the notion that heterosexual sex veers precipitously close to rape -, a particularly pessimistic and troubling theme.

More fundamentally, though, Almodóvar's work seems to suggest an impossibility of meaningful communication between the sexes within a certain society. This chasm between man and woman that can never be truly bridged lies at the centre of Talk To Her, where the one-sided relationship between the young coma patient Alicia and her besotted, delusional nurse Benigno is mirrored by the real relationship between Marco and injured bull-fighter Lydia. Almodóvar's men can only ever desire, fetishise and project onto their relations with women; women, in turn, in the male gaze are literally living dolls whose internal lives may be as real as theirs, but can never be truly apprehended. Women remain, as Simone de Beauvoir suggests, men's eternal 'others': an inherent mystery, in sharp distinction to the knowable Self of the male individual. This communication gap between the sexes - which after all has some undeniable, socialised roots - speaks in Almodóvar's work in dark and sometimes terrifying tones. It presents one of the most compelling and intriguing challenges posed by his films, seemingly portraying a gender dystopia we are prompted to remain ever-vigilant against.

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