If the thought of vaginoplasty, along with related procedures with the aim of total male→female transformation, gives you a case of the willies, then La piel que habito, from Spain, is probably not the film for you. If genre prejudice requires that you disdain and automatically dismiss melodrama, then this film won’t be your cup of blood. If a fluid, chronologically bent and twisted narrative gives you a headache, take two Spielbergs and get some sleep. Otherwise, prepare to be utterly fascinated and mesmerized by Pedro Almodóvar’s tense, brutal and—beneath its poker face—screamingly funny version of French novelist Thierry Jonquet’s 1995 Mygale, a.k.a. Tarantula, which Almodóvar and brother Agustin bewitchingly adapted for the screen. The result took best foreign-language film prizes from the British Academy and critics’ groups in Phoenix, the Washington, D.C., area and Florida.
Antonio Banderas, reunited with Almodóvar after twenty-one years, is intense and riveting—his performance reminded me of Cary Grant’s in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946)—as Toledo plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard, whose wife and daughter each in turn committed suicide. The former, who gets a lethal glimpse of herself after she is horribly burned in a car accident, inspires her husband’s drive to develop a fireproof synthetic skin; the latter, Norma, is traumatized by her witnessing her mother’s leap to her death. Released too soon from a mental hospital, Norma goes off with a boy, Vicente, at a wedding and, failing to understand what is going on, seems to be as “into” the sex he initiates with her on the ground, mistakenly encouraging him; and the boy presses on even after she belatedly protests. Although Robert is of a different opinion, I do not consider this ambiguous circumstance rape; regardless, it unhinges Norma afresh, terrifying her even of her father’s touch—for me, implying that she intuits in her father’s love for her glimmers of sexuality of which he is himself unconscious. In any case, likewise unhinged, Robert kidnaps and imprisons Vicente and begins the agonizing process by which the boy is turned into “Vera Cruz.” (Fans of Penélope Cruz, whose fanny Almodóvar filled out with padding in Volver, 2006, take note!)
As in the case of the surgeon in Georges Franju’s brilliant Les yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face, 1959), who murders women and subjects his disfigured daughter to a series of unsuccessful face transplants, Robert in his cold-blooded revenge against Vicente, presumably motivated by his love for his lost wife and lost daughter, exemplifies the form of love outlasting its content. Robert is simply driven; now he is soulless—and this in a very soulful, entrancingly dark, mysterious film. Perhaps the film’s most beautiful shots show Robert and Vera, asleep in bed, side by side, as one or the other is highlighted to indicate whose dream, which we “see,” is filling us in on the back-story. But this is one of those films in which every shot is immaculate and lovely.
One of Almodóvar’s principal and most finely developed themes here is our current world’s forfeit of privacy, its mania for the theft of others’ privacy and our consequential forfeit of much of our humanity. Vera’s locked-up existence, until Robert takes a sexual interest in her/him (this use of the alternate identity is justified since Vicente unwillingly underwent his sex-change), is constantly monitored and spied-upon on closed-circuit television. Eyes, then, are upon him; but none of this ameliorates the confined, shackled boy’s solitude and loneliness. At one point, he begs Robert, who has brought him dinner, to stay and keep him company—to no avail.
Elena Anaya, who plays Vera Cruz to the eerie hilt, won the best actress Goya Award.
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