The Skin I Live In (2011): Revenge Eaten Cold

Directed by Pedro Almodóvar this 2011 film is an adaptation of Thierry Jonquet‘s novel Mygale (published as Tarantula in English) *information courtesy of Wikipedia* and is about tragic death, madness and revenge.

Almodóvar first read the book ten years before the film was made and he was impressed by  “the magnitude of Doctor Ledgard’s vendetta*information courtesy of Wikipedia* and that is what he made the focus of the film.

The plot revolves around plastic surgeon Dr Robert Ledgard. At the beginning of the film he is experimenting with developing a “tougher” artificial skin that is impervious to insect bites and burning. He gives a presentation to a medical symposium and states that he is experimenting on athymic mice but later reveals that he is using human subjects as well. This admission results in his being denied permission to continue his work.

Ledgard is quite obviously extremely wealthy as his house also has a modern operating theatre as well as other high-tech medical facilities. He keeps a young woman in a room that he watches via CCTV and she is obviously being “treated” with the new tougher skin. It becomes apparent that he is obsessed with his patient, who wears an all-in-one protective “second skin” and practises yoga and some sort of fashion art.

Home chemistry with style.
Home chemistry with style.

As the film progresses, we learn more about the doctor, his staff and his circumstances. His first wife was horribly disfigured and almost died as the result of burns sustained in a car accident. As her health improves she hears their daughter singing in the garden, she gets up from her sickbed and goes to the window to observe the girl singing. Opening the curtain allows her to see her own reflection in the glass; it is that of a monster. Screaming, she flings herself from the window; landing at her daughter’s feet.

A few short years later the daughter, Norma (Blanca Suárez) meets a young man who has “gate crashed” a party she is attending. The gate crasher is Vicente (Jan Cornet) and the two young people hook up. While they are headed to the gardens of the house, Vicente reveals he is high on pills and asks Norma if she takes pills. Her reply, in its innocence, shows how deeply her mother’s suicide and death at her feet has affected her. The girl is on a cocktail of drugs and is obviously a mental wreck.

A short time later the sexually aroused Vicente starts having sex with a dazed Norma, when the song that she sung when her mother killed herself is heard. She starts to panic and begins fighting Vicente and screaming. He panics and strikes her several times till she passes out. Quickly he adjusts her clothing and leaves. Ledgard goes searching for Norma and finds her unconscious. As he is bringing her around, it is apparent that she thinks he raped her.

Years of therapy commence, but, ultimately she has been damaged beyond repair and suffers her mother’s fate. Meanwhile, Ledgard searches for and finds her “attacker” from the party.

Throughout the film we learn more about Ledgard and the young woman, Vera (Elena Anaya); his housekeeper Marilia (Marisa Paredes) and their connections and the tragedies that intertwine their fates.

This film, if not done correctly, could have come off as a Soap Opera with wild tangents of plot running throughout. Watching the movie is like listening to a concerto being performed by drugged artistes who, despite their narcotised state, evoke deep dark emotions of brilliance. Despite the overall theme of retribution and tragedy, the film appears to really be about madness and obsession.

Zeca leaves no doubt as to his intentions for Vera.

On a side note here, Roberto Álamo as Robert’s half-brother Zeca, provides a short hideous comic turn as the criminal who thinks that Vera is Robert’s dead wife resurrected (Ledgard has performed surgery on her to make her resemble his dead wife) and in a suspenseful build up, he rapes Vera and dies for his effort.

Almodóvar specializes in these types of “off-kilter” films that are filled with odd and flawed characters and he does it well. The film never fails to mesmerize nor does it disappoint in plot; a plot that, despite its convoluted nature, is easy enough to follow and is impressive in its depth and scope.

The score, provided by Alberto Iglesias moves the film along well and is almost like a second skin to the events that are taking place on the screen. The movie had an estimated budget of 13 million dollars and had a box office return of over 30 million dollars. Not quite a “runaway” success, but one that shows the film was well received.

A brilliant tour de force of off-kilter characters that are all the helpless flotsam and jetsam of fate’s cruelty and worth every second spent watching it.

Vicente just beginning his penance.

The Devil’s Backbone (2001): Guillermo del Toro’s Tour de Force

Directed and co-written by Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, HellboyThe Devil’s Backbone  is a slow and haunting film that frightens and mesmerises the viewer. Overshadowed by the wildly successful Pan’s Labyrinth, the film is a lesser known film, that despite the success of Labyrinth, is a superior film.

Set during the 1939 Spanish civil war, the film follows Carlos’s arrival to an all boys orphanage located in the war-torn countryside. We follow Carlos in his day-to-day experiences and his interaction with everyone at the orphanage.

The film starts with the camera zooming in on the Orphanage itself, with the narrator, Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi) asking: “What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat it self time and again?” We see a bomb being sent to earth by a plane and its landing in the orphanage and we see the body of a young boy lying on the ground.

The narration continues. “An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An  emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.”  While the last of the narration continues, we see that the boy’s head is covered in blood and that another boy is with him. We then see the bloodied boy in water, sinking slowly down as bubbles rise around him.

This wonderfully mesmerizing opening goes on during the opening credits of the film. And it sets the mood of the film brilliantly. This narrative by Dr Casares sets up the framework of the film. His questioning of what a ghost is tells us that the orphanage is haunted and just from the opening scenes alone, we can tell it is haunted by several spectres.

Carlos is brought to the orphanage by car, speeding through the dusty and desolate countryside. Carlos is with his guardian and bodyguard who is taking him there for his own safety while the civil war escalates. Upon arriving the first thing noticed is the unexploded bomb. It is half buried in the dusty courtyard of the orphanage. This is the first spectre that both haunts and threatens the inhabitants of the orphanage.

Carlos himself comes from a ‘wealthy’ family and he is convinced that he is there temporarily for his own safety. It transpires that he will be there much longer. Initially, Carlos has trouble fitting in with the other boys and he has trouble sleeping. He sees the ghost of the boy we saw at the beginning of the film. His greatest antagonist is Jaime (Íñigo Garcés) but this changes when Carlos saves Jaime from drowning in the ‘dead-boy’s’ pool. 

It turns out that the real bully of the orphanage is Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega) an alumni of the orphanage who stayed to work there when he grew up. Jacinto is the second spectre that haunts the orphanage. A spectre with a pleasing countenance who is full of bad thoughts and evil deeds. He is also the local ‘stud’ servicing, it seems, all the women in the orphanage. Including the ‘head’ of the place, the one legged Carmen (Marisa Paredes), who is loved by Dr Casares.

Dr Casares is the third spectre of the orphanage. Impotent and a man of poetry and great passion, he loves Carmen but says nothing as he knows he cannot please her as a man. Instead he is haunted regularly by the sounds of her love making with Jacinto. And later in the film Casares will become a ‘real’ spectre who protects the boys and saves them from danger.

The boys of the orphanage tell Carlos that the ghost he sees is that of Santi (Junio Valverde) who went missing the night the bomb fell into the orphanage courtyard. The only person who knows what really happened is Jaime and Carlos (and the audience) believe that Jaime killed Santi. Santi is the  third ‘Gothic’ spectre who haunts the orphanage.

While the ghostly sightings and discussions are going on, we find out that the orphanage is the repository for the rebel’s funds. Gold is kept there to help feed and arm the rebels. Jacinto finds out about this and plots to steal it. Dr Casares goes to town and witnesses Carlos’s guardian and body guard’s  execution by government soldiers and is questioned and insulted by the same soldiers. The civil war is getting closer to the orphanage.

This film was all about ghosts and being haunted. All the characters are haunted by things. Things in their past, their present and their possible futures. And it was about ghosts.

The ghosts or spectres are many, the unexploded bomb, Santi’s spirit, Dr Casare, the gold and the civil war itself are all spectres that haunt the characters in the film. There are other ‘ghosts’ and you will discover that everyone in the film is affected by them.

I believe this film, should be considered the apex of Guillermo’s career as a director. The Devil’s Backbone is a film that does not take one miss step in its execution of the story and the building of it’s characters. It was annoyingly difficult to find at one point, I had several friends tell me, they could not find a copy to view.

If you can find this film. Watch it. You will not be disappointed and you will most likely fall in love with this Spanish film and it’s creator.

Guillermo del Toro