Imagine if you’d gone to see Psycho when it first opened in 1960 knowing nothing about it. Imagine! Janet Leigh’s sudden death and film’s sudden shift from girl-on-the-run movie to perverted psychosexual thriller was so disorienting and audacious at the time that people were outraged, absolutely up in arms. It’s something that could never be repeated in today’s ultra-communicative society – spoilers are just too plentiful for anyone to have the rug pulled out from underneath them so thoroughly.
This is why, when I started to hear about Almodóvar’s new film The Skin I Live In, and its Hitchcockian qualities, and its killer twist, I decided to stop reading about it and go and see it ASAP. And while it’s not Psycho (it’s actually more akin to Vertigo, but I worry that even saying that might be too much) it is a very good thriller with a deeply disturbed premise, and I’d strongly encourage you to go and see it before reading about. That being said, I’ll try and be as vague as possible.
Almodóvar has always been heavily influenced by Hitchcock, but it’s never been more pronounced than it is here. The Skin I Live In takes its premise from the novel Tarantula by Thierry Jonquet, the majority of the film takes in one big house populated by only three people: a world-class cosmetic surgeon (Antonio Banderas), his mother and help (Blanca Suárez), and a strange, beautiful woman named Vera (Elena Anaya) who constantly wears a body sock and seems to be locked in one room single room, doing yoga and tearing up her dresses. To reveal any more particulars about the plot would reveal too much, suffice to say the film does a fantastic job keeping you guessing about what’s going on, and when it does reveal it, it turns out to be the very best kind of twist: the missing piece of the puzzle that makes the whole picture clear and ties everything together. It’s also sublimely fucked up: there was audible gasps and mutterings at the screening I went to.
Yes, the Hitchcock influence is stronger than ever here, but this is still an Almodóvar film through and through. The themes and motifs he seems to explore in all his films – his characters’ relationships with their gender, the way we use and manipulate our bodies to externalise what is internal, mother figures, voyeurism – are here in full force, all rendered in that camp-austere aesthetic that he’s favoured since sometime around All About My Mother. The story, whilst far tighter than usual, still twists and turns like a lazy, meandering river in the way Bad Education and Volver did, and he still populates his supporting cast with the queers and perverts that have been his trademark since his first films in the 70s.
What makes the film so interesting is that it manages to feel so fresh at this late stage in his career, just as his style was beginning to feel a little stale. It’s something entirely new for Almodóvar, whilst bringing to fruition ideas that have interested him for the last 40 years. In particular, his visual exploration of bodies here is masterful – there’s one shot, of Vera’s naked torso on an operating table as she slowly breathes in and out and you can clearly see her ribcage expanding, her lungs inhaling, which is one of the most succinct images of the human body as a biological machine that’s ever been committed to celluloid.
That being said, Almodóvar is a director I’ve always been unsure about. I think that at his best he’s wonderful, as he is with the high-camp of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, or the moving soap-opera of Volver, or the queer punk snottiness of Pepi, Luci, Bom. But at his worst he can misfire horribly, or, even worse, just be boring. He’s always had a problem with depicting rape scenes, and here is no exception, but overall The Skin I Live In is the work of a man who hasn’t yet run out of ideas, and has done wonders to restore him in my estimations. He’s no Hitchcock, but but it’s best, The Skin I Live In is the work of one of the great directors. Let’s hope there’s more where that came from.