Antonio Banderas and the man who made him a star, the Spanish queer auteur Almodovar (who left off using his first name, "Pedro," many films ago) reunite after 21 years in The Skin I Live In. Although this new collaboration of star and writer-director is not quite as enthralling as the one that occurred when Penelope Cruz returned to the master in 2006 with Volver, neither does it offer Banderas as showy a role as Cruz got. But it'll do, and the film finds Almodovar back in top form after the slight comedown of his last outing, Broken Embraces.
Banderaswho has never looked this smashing on screenplays Robert Ledgard, a modern-day mad scientist who has invented a type of skin that will not burn. He does this after witnessing the agony his unfaithful wife went through after surviving a flaming car wreckonly to commit suicide after momentarily catching a glimpse of her horribly scarred body. Late at night, after lecturing on his discovery (to the astonishment of his colleagues), the supremely confident Robert arrives home at his gated estate in Toledo, Spain.
There, in his laboratory/operating room he applies the newly grown skin to a body suit worn by Vera (Elena Anaya), the gorgeous woman whom he keeps a solitary prisoner and whom he studies at night on his flat-screen monitor from the safety of his bedroom.
How Vera came to be Robert's prisoner and her true identity (Is she perhaps the reincarnation of his dead wife?) is just one of the tantalizing mysteries that Almodovar spins in this time-lapse mystery staged in three intertwining segments (12 years ago, six years ago and 2012). Robert is aided by his no-nonsense housekeeper, Marilia (the great Marisa Parades), who has more than a few secrets of her own and urges him to kill Vera before what she perceives as a house of cards comes falling down. Robert's emotionally fragile daughter, Norma (Blanca Suarez); Vicente (Jan Cornet), a handsome young drug addict she meets at a party; and Zeca (Roberto Alamo), Marilia's thuggish, criminal of a son all add to the whirling subplots.
Roberta cool, sleek man of few words who's emotionally flawedhas the look and feel of Guido Contini (although none of his indecision), the part that Banderas played so sensationally onstage in Nine (and should have repeated in the next-to-awful movie). However, Nine director Rob Marshall's loss is Almodovar's gain and the latter has gifted Banderas with a character who is just as compelling. Burdened by the tragic events in his life, Robert has a plan that is spectacularly twisted and deliciously entertaining. (I am purposely being vague about the intricacies of the plot, which include transgender elements)
Like the best of Almodovar, the thriller and melodramatic aspects of his script are shot through with self-reflective monologues (at least one or two) that intercede at just the right moments. (Parades delivers my favorite.) Hitchcock, as ever, is a reference point for Almodovar's script (based on a novel by Thierry Jonquet) and visual flourishes (e.g., Robert's tanned hand delicately applying the porcelain white skin to the wide-eyed Vera). Obviously, Franju's 1960 French classic Eyes Without a Face is a direct reference point as well. As in many of his films, questions about the boundaries of sexuality, gender and consuming love are at the heart of The Skin I Live In (literally, this time) and play just underneath while, on the surface, Almodovar never fails to entertain. Aided by his usual cinematographer (Jose Luis Alcaine) and his superb, Bernard Herrmann-influenced composer, Alberto Iglesias, Almodovar has delivered another transformative work that finds his queer sensibility in high, thrilling gear.
Of related interest: Director Roman Polanski's underrated 1976 paranoid thriller The Tenant is another film that explores issues of gender identityalbeit it in a very coded, oblique fashion. Polanski himself takes the lead as a meek bureaucrat who moves into the Parisian apartment of a recent suicide victim, a lesbian fascinated with Egyptology.
He slowly takes on the personality of the dead womaneventually going so far as using her make-up and donning her favorite dress. Are the elderly, noise intolerant neighbors, the cranky landlord and the dismissive concierge trying to drive him insane? And is the dead woman's distracted friend, the beautiful but sluttish Stella (Isabelle Adjani), in on the plot or are both just the products of his overworked imagination? Audacious, perverse and more than a little over the top, Polanski's film (exquisitely shot by Sven Nykvist and hauntingly scored by Philippe Sarde) manages to convey terror; make points on the issue of ethnic prejudice; and, perhaps most surprisingly, has a lot of genuinely funny moments. The film features expert supporting performances from Shelley Winters, Melvyn Douglas and Jo Van Fleet. It plays Oct. 21 and 25 at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St. www.siskelfilmcenter.org
More gender-bending: The Christine Jorgensen Story (1970), now out on DVD for the first time from the MGM Limited Edition Collection, is the dreadful/fabulous biopic of the one-time George Jorgensen, who became an international sensation in 1952 when word leaked of his sex change in Denmark. The moviepart tearjerker, part "educational film" and hopelessly datedstill has its compelling moments thanks in part, one assumes, to the sympathetic direction of Irving Rapper, who decades earlier had helmed the Bette Davis soaper Now, Voyager and who was also gay. Interestingly, Hollywood's most hopeless auteur, Ed Wood, was going to film Jorgensen's story but when rights issues got in the way, Wood, a real-life transvestite, made Glen Or Glenda? instead.
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