Friday, October 28, 2011

When a Director Loses His Mojo: Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In

Antonio Banderas and Elena Anaya star in The Skin I Live In

If you had told me a decade ago that Quentin Tarantino and Kathryn Bigelow would have made two of the best films of recent memory, namely Inglourious Basterds and The Hurt Locker, I wouldn’t have believed you. Their body of work, except for his debut Reservoir Dogs and her second feature Near Dark, never looked to deliver on the promise that they could direct anything that great again. But they did. And if you had suggested that Spanish wunderkind Pedro Almodóvar would become one of the dullest, least interesting directors around, I would have scoffed as well. Yet that’s exactly what happened with him. The Skin I Live In, his latest movie, provides more evidence of a filmmaker who’s become stale in terms of imagination, presentation and content.

It’s not always evident why, in some instances, a director can improve in quantum leaps literally overnight (as Curtis Hanson, for example, did with L.A. Confidential). It's also not clear how they can even do a 360 degree turn in their approach to movie-making (as David Fincher did after the vile, misanthropic likes of Se7en and Fight Club in helming the movies – Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Social Network – which were humane, thoughtful and multilayered, everything his earlier films were not). In the case of Almodóvar, it’s perhaps easier to hazard a guess as to why his promise has pretty much evaporated.

Director Pedro Almodóvar
Almodóvar began making short films at almost exactly the moment when long time Spanish dictator Francisco Franco died in 1975, thus beginning his directorial career when Spain was tasting the heady freedom of their post-fascist era, including the lifting of the heavy censorship of the movies under his oppressive regime. Openly gay, Almodóvar, with his first feature, Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls on the Heap (1980) and his distinct follow ups in the next decade, including Labyrinth of Passion (1982), Dark Habits (1983), What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984), Matador (1986), Law of Desire (1987) and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), immediately and consistently pushed the envelope in his subject matter: incorporating gay themes, transsexual characters, drug usage, sexual role playing, explicit nudity and a full frontal attack on such cherished Spanish institutions as bullfighting and religious orders. His movies were robust, exuberant, often ragged in terms of their special effects, but full to bursting in his evident joy in tweaking sacred cows and promoting a sexually liberated world view. (They also introduced the world to two great Spanish acting talents: Carmen Maura and Antonio Banderas.) Sometimes it seemed as if the screen could not contain all his characters and their situations; you could almost imagine them bursting into the real world as Woody Allen’s creations did in The Purple Rose of Cairo.

Yet around the time that he and Maura fell out, his films begin to exhibit a dull sameness in their approach and subject matter. His films began to lose their head of steam which put him in the same company as his closest American counterpart, John Waters (Pink Flamingos, Desperate Living), who also became less outrageous when his muse Divine passed away. Waters, like Almodóvar, may have also been somewhat undone by even more outrageous movie-makers like Gaspar Noé (I Stand Alone) and Lars Von Trier (Anti-Christ) who followed down the pike. (Waters at least sublimated his cutting wit into his writing, such as his recent quasi-memoir Role Models,  which was published in 2010.)

Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down! (1990), Almodóvar’s first film after Maura’s departure, may have had a sexy and talented Spanish actress, Victoria Abril, in the lead; and Banderas, as well, but its tropes, a sadomasochistic/romantic comedy about a kidnapped woman who develops feelings for her captor, were already starting to feel old hat, despite the movie's explicitness which provoked controversy in the United States (garnering an initial X rating and attacks from feminist groups and eventually leading to the institution of the NC-17 film rating to denote films that went further than R rated movies). Subsequently, except for his lively, atypical Ruth Rendell mystery adaptation Live Flesh (1997), Almodóvar’s recent movies, such as Talk to Her (2002), Bad Education (2004) and Volver (2006) have become progressively more staid, restrained and flat. I even had to look up the description of his eminently forgettable Broken Embraces (2009), which starred Penelope Cruz, to remember what it was about. The Skin I Live In is a continued demonstration of his creative decline.

Antonio Banderas as Robert Ledgard

Essentially a mad scientist film, albeit without any dramatic juice, The Skin I Live In, features Antonio Banderas, returning to the Almodóvar fold after many years, as Robert Ledgard, a respected scientist who has invented a skin that cannot burn – a pronouncement that is met with some skepticism and concern by his close colleagues that he’s up to no good. Soon enough we see that is in fact the case: he’s keeping a young woman Vera (Elena Anaya) in captivity, locked in a padded room that is under surveillance, a process aided by an older female servant Marilia (Almodóvar veteran Marisa Paredes). Who she is and why she is Robert's prisoner is slowly revealed in some key flashbacks, but the revelation, which I won’t disclose, is distinctly underwhelming –  and if you’ve seen any number of Almodóvar’s early films, it's not nearly as shocking as he seems to think it is. (The movie also echoes Georges Franju's psychological French horror film, Eyes Without a Face (1960), a superior movie that contains disquieting and disturbing elements largely missing in The Skin I Live In.)

Carmen Maura (right) in Women on the Verge 
Almodóvar calls The Skin I Live In, “a horror story without screams or frights,” which is true enough but why would you want to make a horror film devoid of the very elements that make the genre work? The Skin I Live In, despite a touching performance by Anaya as the imprisoned Vera, doesn’t make much of a tactile impression. It’s set in historical Toledo but doesn’t utilize the city to any great effect, unlike the freewheeling Madrid depicted in Labyrinth of Passion. And Banderas, probably realizing that the role of Robert doesn’t have much shading, delvers a rote performance. Oh, there are traces of Almodóvar’s old insouciance, as when a masked man identifies himself to his mother by baring his ass, but these moments are few and far between in a movie that is devoid of his raunchy, wild persona. Mostly, this is a perfectly framed, oddly tasteful, even demure film about thwarted passions, obsessive desire and troubled characters – potentially transgressive content smothered by airless, pedestrian direction. (You don’t incidentally need to go soft as Almodóvar has; the films of the late French filmmaker Claude Chabrol (La femme infidèle, La Cérémonie) remained just as cynical and angry throughout his career.) Even though, like John Waters, his cinematic craft has been honed over the years, Almodóvar essentially appears bored with film-making. The diminished returns of his recent work, pictures which ironically have earned him much public acclaim, show a major director who has clearly lost his mojo. Judging by The Skin I Live In, I doubt if it will ever come back.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he is currently teaching a course on the work of Steven Spielberg. Also on Monday Oct. 17, he began teaching Genre Movies at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre in Toronto .

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review and great way to start. Skin IS a huge disappointment.
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