Pedro Does Vertigo

Pedro Almodovar’s fresh take on the Hitchcock classic about sex, obsession and second chances

by Philip Matthews

She’s dead – can he bring her back? In Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito), Antonio Banderas is Robert Ledgard, a wealthy plastic surgeon living in a castle-like mansion on the outskirts of Toledo. In the kitchen downstairs, closed-circuit television shows him and his housekeeper (Marisa Paredes) what’s going on upstairs. He has a few screens that give him a selection of views. Mostly, what is going on upstairs is that he is keeping a woman captive.

Her name is Vera (Elena Anaya), and she’s the experimental subject. She’s not dead; rather, she is the replacement. Twelve years earlier, Robert’s wife Gal, killed herself after being horrifically burned in a car accident. It’s taken a while but now Vera has Gal’s face. The next step is to give her burn-resistant skin.

This is sombre and painstaking work for Robert. He has a surgery in his home, which is convenient as some of his procedures and the thinking behind them might be considered a little … unorthodox. But again, this is serious work – if he is heading towards some kind of pleasurable reward, there seems to be little joy in it.

Now 51, Banderas has moved a long way past the boyishness that made him a star in Almodovar films like Law of Desire (1987), Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1992) and is well into distinguished middle age. (Fact: Almodovar is the best director of both Banderas and Penelope Cruz). The middle-aged male obsessive? If the basic idea of The Skin I Live In wasn’t already reminding you of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), then Banderas’ new-found proximity to 50s-era Cary Grant and James Stewart should.

So, Vertigo. Of all the approaches to this kind of story – she’s dead, can he bring her back? – Vertigo must still be the best, the most mysterious, the most seductive, the most gut-wrenching. Scottie Ferguson reconstructs his lost Madeleine only to … what is the appeal of this? It’s a dream-life sensation in which one encounters the dead and finds that time has been magically erased. You can go back. Chris Marker might have nailed it in his essay on Vertigo, “A free replay: notes on Vertigo” (remembering that Marker’s La Jetee was itself a note on Vertigo). You should probably read the whole thing – linked here — but this is the key bit:

“Whether one accepts the dream reading or not, the power of this once ignored film has become a commonplace, proving that the idea of resurrecting a lost love can touch any human heart, whatever he or she may say. ‘You’re my second chance!’ cries Scottie as he drags Judy up the stairs of the tower. No one now wants to interpret these words in their superfi­cial sense, meaning his vertigo has been conquered. It’s about reliving a moment lost in the past, about bringing it back to life only to lose it again. One does not resurrect the dead, one doesn’t look back at Eurydice. Scottie experiences the greatest joy a man can imagine, a second life, in exchange for the greatest tragedy, a second death. What do video games, which tell us more about our unconscious than the works of Lacan, offer us? Neither money nor glory, but a new game. The possibility of playing again. ‘A second chance.’ A free replay.”

Okay, but whereas Scottie seemed emotionally overwhelmed by the possibility of playing again, even enslaved by it (he drags, he cries), Robert is more – no surprise – clinical. Not just because the resurrection of his lost love is a long series of surgical procedures but because Banderas’s acting is so minimal, so expressionless – Almodovar directed Banderas to Jean-Pierre Melville’s minimalist noir The Red Circle (1970), and in particular, asked him to pay attention to the inscrutability of Alain Delon.

Equally, while Vertigo was a police procedural so warped by morbid romantic longing that it could be claimed as surrealist, The Skin I Live In is within the mad scientist tradition, as a cold and elegant horror. The horror references pile up: Eyes Without a Face (1960) most famously.

Discussions of Almodovar films don’t get far without an accumulation of references, usually to American cinema. In this respect, his Spanish cinema is roughly equivalent to, if slightly later than, the new German Cinema – especially Fassbinder’s treatment of Hollywood melodrama. Over the decades, the style has been toned down, now less in thrall to Warhol, Waters and Sirk-via-Fassbinder, less flamboyant and garish – qualities that were partly a kind of perverse response to the sudden freedom of Spanish culture at the end of the Franco era – and has, since 1995’s The Flower of My Secret, been subject to a remarkable level of control and consistency. He is a one-man genre. You can tick off the abiding concerns: obsession, gender roles, disappearances, reinvention, “the body as the agent of flexibility and change,” as film academic Steven Marsh has put it (all these themes are present and accounted for in The Skin I Live In). He is fascinated by Old Hollywood’s use of glamour and disguise, the thriller as a cold revenge genre, the way that separate lives collide, secret backstories. His trademark, as a plot device, is the long, seamlessly-integrated flashback, beautifully deployed here.

You might notice that I’m trying to avoid expanding on the plot outline of The Skin I Live In. This is a story that depends upon surprise, so let no one spoil it (Almodovar and his brother and co-writer Agustin have freely adapted a French novel, Mygale by Thierry Jonquet, which is unlikely to have been widely read in this part of the world). But let’s just say, by way of consumer warning, that the film includes at least two rapes, plenty of sex and gender confusion, the sudden and shocking appearance of a man dressed in a tiger costume and less comedy than usual. And that there are enough direct conjunctions of sex and death to keep psychoanalysts in work for years.

If you’re talking about themes, art is another. No surprise, really, if Almodovar is interested in the construction of selves – which is not just a metaphor this time. There is a way in which the urge to create and document is part of the impulse to stay sane in captivity. The clinical room, with its stainless steel surfaces and sleek screens, resembles the antiseptic modern gallery space as much as a medical institution. As Banderas’ Robert gazes at the sleeping Vera, via his high-def screen, you might be reminded of real time art like Andy Warhol’s Sleep (1963) or Sam Taylor-Wood’s film of the sleeping David Beckham.

A book on the work of the late Louise Bourgeois is among the cultural supplies delivered to the captive Vera; she works on her own versions of Bourgeois’ “Femme Maison” (“woman house”) pictures, and if there is a feminist reading to be drawn from all this, it could be about the folly of the Vertigo project as an objectification – what kind of say do the Madeleines and the Veras get in the process? This is also a film in which you sense that the books seen – or the art glimpsed on the walls of the Ledgard mansion – have something to tell us. There is an Alice Munro book and, if you’re one of those people who likes the shock of a New Zealand reference turning up unexpectedly, you should know that Vera is reading Janet Frame’s An Angel At My Table – “which is also about a survivor,” Almodovar has said, adding that “I don’t show the cover of the book, but it’s useful for the actor to have this information to ground this character”.

The story may be off-putting – or absurd, if you try to offer anyone a full synopsis – but it is expertly done (at a personal level, I haven’t been as gripped by an Almodovar film since 2004’s Bad Education). It’s a film in which total insanity is rendered with a strange kind of aesthetically pleasing yet eerie calm (Marisa Paredes’ housekeeper: “I’ve got insanity in my entrails”), and in which narrative and melodramatic pleasures are so thrillingly delivered, that it could only be the product of an artist in his mature prime, an artist so identifiable and consistent – this is his 18th film, after all — that he almost risks being taken for granted.

The Skin I Live In opens in New Zealand on March 15.