Monday, November 14, 2011

Review: "La piel que habito"

Pedro Almodóvar is one of Spain's most celebrated modern directors. His films have won two Academy Awards and are regularly amongst the most anticipated releases in any given year. Penélope Cruz can attribute almost all of her early success and her status as one of Hollywood's most sought after actresses to her work with Almodóvar in 1997's Carne Trémula (Live Flesh). While it would be easy to say that La piel que habito moves away from Almodóvar's recent focus on all things feminine, it would be just as easy to say that the film is his most feminine yet. It is Almodóvar's take on the horror genre, and while it is not necessarily a horror film, it is entirely spooky and altogether frightening. I am still reeling after seeing the film more than two weeks ago! As always, Almodóvar uses colour brilliantly. The film, shot on location in Santiago de Compostela and Toledo, is shot with a skillfully creative eye. I have been a fan of Almodóvar since first seeing Volver at a jam-packed theatre (read: entirely empty except for me) in 2006. I fell in love with Penélope Cruz, who was originally attached to the film as early as 2002, at the same moment. It is a shame that Almodóvar's films are a niche market. Subtitled films no longer have the same stigma they once had. Foreign films are often much more intriguing and well-crafted than Hollywood blockbusters. La piel que habito is spooky and cleverly-plotted film which uses a double narrative to effectively build and sustain suspense. It is much more a thriller than a horror film, and features great performances from Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya and Marisa Parades.

Set in 2012, Robert Ledgard (Banderas) is a world-renowned surgeon who has successfully cultivated skin that cannot burn. He claims that he has only tested his work on mice, but he has a woman, Vera (Anaya), held captive at his estate. He estate functions as both his private residence and a facility for medical research. Vera remains locked in a bedroom and only has contact with Robert and his maid Marila (Parades). He has a large television screen in his bedroom and watches her from the down the hall, and only unlocks her door to give her morphine shots. While Robert is away, Marilia's estranged son Zeca (Roberto Alamo) shows up at the estate. He notices Vera's image on a television screen and sees a remarkable resemblance to Robert's deceased wife, who burned to death following a car accident. Six years prior, Robert and his teenage daughter Norma (Blanca Suarez) are attending a wedding. Norma has been released from a psychiatric hospital to attend the event. At the wedding, Norma meets Vincente (Jan Cornet), a young man who works in his mother's dress shop. Vincente lures Norma outside believing that she is eager to have sex with him. When Norma screams, Vincente hits her so hard she becomes unconscious and she flees. Robert quickly finds daughter, but upon waking she believes that he is her rapist. Norma returns to treatment and soon commits suicide. Robert, suffering from the loss of both his daughter and his wife, kidnaps Vincente.

La piel que habito is a thoroughly engrossing film. As a viewer, you become more incredulous as the plot unfolds. As soon as you think Almodóvar has gone too far, he goes three steps further. I have not seen Antonio Banderas in many Spanish-language films, and it is amazing how much more expressive he is in his native tongue - much like Penélope Cruz. While Banderas is the unequivocal star of the film, it is the supporting cast members who control the tempo. Marisa Parades, who has appeared in several Almodóvar films, is sensational as Marilia. Jan Cornet and Elena Anaya, whose roles are uniquely linked, are equally mesmerizing. As the film is a thriller, it is important to mention the fantastic score created by Alberto Iglesias, whose credits include Almodóvar's flawless Hable con ella (Talk to Her) and another of my favourite films, The Constant Gardener. The film is based on French writer Thierry Jonquet's novel Mygale (translated as Tarantula in English - an interesting translation, considering the twisted sexual nature of the story). La piel que habito will not win Pedro Almodóvar any new fans, and it may be a step too far for some of his die-hard fans, but it is a fantastic film that takes sexual thrillers to a whole new level. This is a disturbingly twisted film that could only come from the mind of Pedro Almodóvar!

My rating: 4 stars out of 4.

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