Monday, October 31, 2011

Pedro Almodovar's The Skin I Live In

And the book says, "We may be through with the past, but the past ain't through with us."

At my old apartment I slept next to four items: a tiny dinosaur, which Stephanie sent in the mail, a rubber Creature From the Black Lagoon symbolizing Shawn, a Klein bottle given to me by Megan as a token of friendship and shared time studying Thomas Pynchon, and a Ralph Steadman-esque drawing of a man at an airport urinal in the 1960's drawn by Emma's uncle that she gave to me to show me that we are family. I called the place "home," but these things were home, and even then they were not home. They were just items that reminded me of my friends, but even then my relationship to those items wasn't that simple (particularly to the Klein bottle, which still confuses me and draws me into thinking about space, time, narratives, friendships, literature and the past). The bottle looks like a beaker that has been folded into itself so that there is no top / bottom / left / right, just one non-orientable surface. Think of it as a 3-D mobius strip. But, onto Almodovar's best movie since "Talk to Her." 

"The Skin I Live In" is ostensibly the story of lonely, brilliant plastic surgeon Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas). His wife and daughter have both committed suicide, he has no friends, only a mother that acts as his head maid. He illegally conducts a "transgenesis" experiment on a woman, links her cells with those of a pig and gives her nearly indestructible skin. Enough material there for at least one movie. "Skin," though, feels like at least three movies in one, but is more likely one movie folded in on itself three times. It opens in the present, which is actually our future, 2012, at Ledgard's home. The narrative pivots unexpectedly and about half way through the film flashes back six years to 2006, the year Ledgard lost his daughter. During this flashback the film jumps ahead two weeks, still in the past, to show Ledgard hunting down the man who he believes is responsible for his daughter's death, then playfully brings us back to the present with a title card that reads simply, "Back to the Present." Three times, all interacting with the present simultaneously, all informing and explaining Ledgard's emotional life. To call each act, each flashback, each new pocket separate from the last is to misunderstand the breadth of each move. The link between structure and character is one non-orientable surface. Lately Almodovar has shown that even his narrative can be beautiful, and "Skin" is the belle of the ball. Think of it as a 2-D Klein bottle. 

The indistinguishable line between Ledgard and the way the film is told is what separates "Skin" from, and makes it more exciting than, many other films told out of chronology. The mixed up timeline is neither a gimmick nor does it particularly help explain the story in a conventional way. You could tell "Skin's" story in chronological order and have a perfectly crazy, satisfyingly horrific movie that makes total sense and is exciting on its own, but instead Almodovar lets Ledgard dictate the flow of the narrative. The first true flashback* comes after Ledgard has slept with his prisoner / experiment Vera Cruz, and is actually a disguised fever dream that he is having in the present. Even better, the next flashback (the jump ahead two weeks (still in the past)) is a dream that Vera is having while sleeping next to Ledgard. The two flashbacks are actually a weird combined dream of two characters in the present about their intertwined pasts, each picking up not where the other left off, but rather overlapping and merging before skipping ahead together as one.

In the middle of all this, Almodovar finds the center of his story, hidden and folded underneath all of these croissant layers. In the dream flashback (dreamback?) Ledgard's daughter, Norma, meets a young man named Vincente. They have a deep and instant connection, and wander off to a lusty forest. The second time I watched the film, even though I knew what was fated to happen, I felt like they would truly fall in love in that forest. Instead a wild sentence to write occurs, a sentence that will ultimately push Ledgard to become the final incarnation of the monster he is: Norma hears the song she sang when her mother threw herself out of a window, and in mid-coitus has a nervous screaming breakdown, causing Vicente to panic and beat her in order to mute her cries. *The only "expositional" flashback in the film comes before Ledgard's dream, and is actually just a story that Ledgard's mother tells to Vera about Norma's mother's death. Norma was singing a folk song at the moment of her mother's death. The other flashbacks, those stemming from Ledgard and his dreams, don't exposit the story so much as they flip the context in which we view Ledgard and his actions. With each step back we have to restart the movie in our minds to understand why Ledgard does what he does, and the moment Vicente strikes Norma down is the moment that Ledgard cannot return from.

The structure itself asks questions of Ledgard as well as the audience: how does the past effect us? How do you deal with it? How does time itself move? Is it a progression or is the passing of time an illusion? Is my life a non-orientable surface or is it actually a thing in forward motion as I am experiencing it, one moment after another? What is the nature not only of the Klein bottle, but that one Klein bottle on my desk? That bottle is the only item of the four mentioned that survived the move to my new house. What happened to my friendship with Megan? Were we ever truly friends? Was there a key moment like Vicente and Norma's that changed the fate of our friendship forever? Or was it doomed from "the beginning"? You could, after all, say that Ledgard's fate had been sealed long before the ambiguous "rape" of his daughter. All the possible instances are apparent in the film, stretching back even before his birth: he was doomed when his wife died, when his daughter was born, when he married his wife, when his mother had his brother, when he was born, when his mother was born. 

These are the things I am thinking about during a movie like this, not the plot or the melodrama; those are just portals into my own life. And this reaction makes sense, I think, and stretches across so many of my relationships and hangups and shit from the past that dredges itself up to my surface at the most unexpected moments. Like a tiger walking into your house from out of the blue. It makes sense in the structure, and it makes sense in Banderas's acting style. It has a blankness, or an empty cup-ness that is inspired by Alain Delon's style in "Le Samurai" or "Le Cercle Rouge," and allows me, the viewer, the map myself not onto him but into him. This style, for me, is ironically a very intimate one, because on the surface it may seem stoic or still but really it is a magnet for my emotions and viscerally connects me with parts of my life I've otherwise ignored or let go of. Inside Ledgard I see my regrets and the people I let slip away from me and all the wrongs I've committed, small and personal as they may be.

The other irony here is that the expansive one-ness I feel from this movie comes straight out of its highly choreographed structure. I rarely have this feeling during movies that are actually about this topic, and practically never during movies that are structureless (or structureless enough that they feel meandering or inclusive). In fact, "Skin" brings these themes out by opposing them, by actively excluding the audience from key information, or daring me to empathize with Banderas's stoney face. And this is the beauty of the film. Each apparent opposition actually impregnates its opposite with meaning: Vera / Vicente, Marilia / Norma, Ledgard / Me. I would say that from inside Vera, Vicente actually finds more meaning in his life. Marilia finds meaning by telling Norma's story. And I find meaning from within Ledgard. We merge into one surface. That Klein bottle on my desk actually inspires little more than ambivalence in me, but if I imagine myself from inside it or looking out from Megan's eyes, I see my life in a more whole way. It, to me, is Ledgard's masky face. Maybe that is the perfect definition of an audience member: simply eyes without a face. And while on the surface his writing may seem literary or written or wrought with symbolism, Almodovar is smart enough to write with his camera, not his pen, and the film rides that razor's edge across my eyes all the way to the end.

It took two weeks of my life to find this article in me, and even now I don't know if it's any good. I did thank the film in a different way, though. For three of the last four Halloweens I've paid tribute to some of my favorite filmmakers. Steve Zissou (documentarian), Coffin Joe (horror maestro), and this year Almodovar. I dressed up as Vera Cruz and went to Cinefamily. That's me hanging out with Edith Head.

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