The Skin I Live In (2011)

JANUARY 7, 2012


Having to ask if something can count as a horror movie is usually a sign that it probably isn’t, and honestly had I just watched The Skin I Live In on its own, I probably wouldn’t have thought of it as a genre film. But literally everyone that answered my Twitter query said it was, and it made a few horror-centric “Best of 2011” films, and it’s even featured on the cover of a recent Fangoria, so I guess it qualifies under a few of my “rules” even if I don’t necessarily agree.

And that’s kind of ironic, because it fits into two genres quite well. One would be the mad scientist group; a terrific Antonio Banderas plays a Frankenstein type character here – a doctor with a great idea, going about it in very unusual and illegal ways, losing sight of what he’s trying to accomplish once a personal agenda comes into play, etc. The goal is a new type of skin that can help protect the body it covers – we see him test it with a malaria-ridden mosquito that refuses to bite the skin, which to me is the best thing ever (having spent much time in Maine during the summer, I have put on too much of that awful Off stuff in my life – I want mosquito proof skin!). As is usually the case, he is testing this on a not particularly willing subject, and the movie is essentially about their relationship, which isn’t always antagonistic. The woman he is testing can be tender or abrasive depending on the scene, and the film’s fractured narrative helps keep things interesting – a scene where she defends Banderas is just as surprising as one where she lashes out against him.

The other genre would be somewhat spoiler-ish to discuss, so I have left it out. As I mentioned, the film isn’t told in a linear format, and thus after a half hour or so where we see Banderas testing, getting a sense of what Vera’s life is like while imprisoned in his home/laboratory, we flash back a few years to meet a few new characters and find out how exactly Vera came to become part of his life in the first place. I won’t spoil, but it’s part of what gives the movie its “horror” identity – it’s definitely out there and unique, and more than a touch disturbing. But director Pedro Almodovar (who is beloved and lauded and has several Oscar nominations and even a win, so of course this is the first one of his movies that I’ve seen) never flaunts the movie’s genre origins – even the movie’s most batshit plot element is underplayed, and with the time jumping structure it easily skips over what could have been the more horrific scenes in the film.

It’s also got a surprising (but small) sense of absurd humor, best exemplified with the sequence late in the first act when a man dressed as a tiger (for Carnival) more or less breaks into Banderas’ house, where his mother is employed as the live-in maid/housekeeper/voice of reason to Banderas. Again, without spoiling, he makes advances on Vera that he thinks will be reciprocated, and she DOES, albeit not for the reasons he expect. It’s very uncomfortably odd/silly in a way, and he keeps his tiger costume on the entire time, so it’s sort of an extended sight gag (and she never bothers to learn his name; for the rest of the movie she refers to him as “the tiger”).

Back to the structure for a second – if I had any real complaint it would be that certain questions are left unanswered, ones I can’t ask here without spoiling, but I can do one in inviso-text I guess (How did Vera’s vocal chords change? Hormones or not, they’re usually a dead giveaway for this sort of surgery). Some of the “6 months later” type stuff almost seems like an easy work-around to avoid answering such questions, and as the film is based on a book, I couldn’t help but wonder if those elements made more sense/were more fleshed out there. Also, Banderas has one opinion of Vera that changes, which seems out of character and even a bit confusing (inviso-text time – he seems to actually enjoy banging Vera – it’s almost like he forgot who she really was, i.e. someone he should hate) which also may have made a bit more sense with some more time or even a straightforward narrative where we see his feelings change over time, instead of trying to piece it together as we’re watching. Perhaps someone can edit the film in chronological order and see if his behavior feels a bit more natural.

Or maybe I’m just dumb, I dunno - in fact, halfway through the movie I realized I didn’t want to write up a review. You know me, slashers and zombies are more my speed when it comes to critiquing – I feel a little under-qualified to be appraising such “adult” fare (in a foreign language from a celebrated filmmaker I have no experience with, no less). But in a way that’s almost praise for the film – I really dug it just as a viewing experience, not as a “HMAD entry”. This wasn’t a chore; I would have been happy to go see this strange sounding movie that came highly recommended from friends (and at the New Bev, yay!), as opposed to say, Amityville Haunting or whatever, where I’m just watching it because I needed something to review for Thursday. And also, a big part of my enjoyment came from not knowing much about it, which is why I kept things vague here even though the movie has already come and gone in regular release. I wouldn’t go in expecting a horror movie by any means, but if you like offbeat dramas with disturbing elements and this wasn’t on your radar, by all means seek it out (legally!) and be as surprised as I was.

What say you?


  1. This movie doesn't have the typical horror genre elements, yet it does have some intense frightening moments. Great review.

  2. As one of the people who assured you it would count, I just think the motivation of the plot puts it under the purview of horror--it's just dressed up in really, really nice,, I guess. Like an artier version of Cronenberg's body horror, only it has some really interesting psychological underpinnings too. I think you hit on it talking about Banderas seemingly "enjoying" it--that part was kind of unnerving to me--the lengths people will go to justify their actions and delude themselves is scary stuff.

    But, yeah, it wasn't at all what I was expecting when I saw it, either. I thought it was going to be a total riff on Eyes Without A Face.


    Nevermind the voice in certain character... What about the facial hair we did see naturally grew on said character? ... Maybe that's explained on the book as well.

    Spoiler Ends

    A lot of people said that this time the director went in a new direction, daring and disturbing...

    I have seen several films of Almodovar... HE ALWAYS use the same gimmicks... Gratuitious sex scenes, characters with questionable morals, that in turn try to justify by elemnts of their past, "controversial" sex scenes, and a final twist... I really didn't saw where the "NEW DIRECTION" people were talking about... and I just have seen "Tacones Lejanos", "Todo Sobre mi Madre" and "La Mala Educacion" ...

    Been away from some time, glad to see you are still keeping the goal of a movie a day..

  4. A much more subversive and shocking (in my opinion) horror film dealing with similar issues of gender and body is Argento's cruelly underrated Stendhal Syndrome.


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