Since Mary Shelley’s cautionary novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was published anonymously in 1818, there have been countless adaptations, remakes, and updates—both in literature and in film. My favorites are those that go beyond the creation of monsters and the “don’t play God” theme and introduce subtler issues as well, or else treat the monster metaphorically. In film, previously, we saw such finesse at work in “The Mosquito Coast” (1986), a Paul Theroux adaptation in which Harrison Ford plays an inventor who moves his family to Belize to start a new life . . . and tampers with the natural order of things by creating a gigantic refrigerator in the middle of a Third-World jungle.
The Frankenstein theme runs closer to the surface in “The Skin I Live In,” which recently won a BAFTA Award for Best Film Not in the English Language. Director Pedro Almodóvar (“Volver,” “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”) cast Antonio Banderas as a gifted plastic surgeon who introduces a “super skin” that he tells the scientific community he’s successfully used on animals. So why wouldn’t it work on humans? He asks that question rhetorically, because he already knows the answer. Secretly, he’s been combining the DNA of pigs and humans and working on human guinea pigs since the very beginning of his experiments. Is he mad, or simply driven by the death of his wife, who was horribly burned in an automobile accident? How was he regarded in the scientific community before his current groundbreaking research? What made him decide to be a plastic surgeon in the first place? What was the relationship with his wife like? What was the relationship with his young-adult daughter like, or the relationship with his mother (Marisa Paredes)? What the heck is up with his half-brother? And how does he . . .? A Freudian would want to know, but so will audiences reclining in their home theaters to watch the film with a snack and a drink.
How he made his fortune isn’t an issue, because we expect plastic surgeons to live in modern-day castles with on-site laBORatory. Booohooohooohaaahaaa! Although that’s a bit out of place, because there’s nothing exceptionally menacing about this doctor, nor does he seem mentally unbalanced. But he’s intense, to be sure—determined to create a fireproof skin so that no one ever again will have to go through what his wife went through, or what he and his daughter (Ana Mena) have suffered since.
Banderas is fantastic in the lead. Taking his cue from a deliberately oblique and understated screenplay from Almodóvar, he strikes just the right tone and bearing in order to keep viewers guessing. And let’s face it. Mad science is like magic. You don’t want too much explained.
In fact, unanswered questions only seem to make the film stronger. Having seen it, you go over everything in your mind, speculating on the answers. And when Dr. Ledgard clings to his daughter after his wife is gone and is fiercely protective of her when young men show up, it makes sense on a level that so many parents can understand . . . but would never discuss. There’s a lot of the unspoken in this film, which is one of its strengths. Hollywood should be so trusting of audiences.
Almodóvar manages a Hitchcock-like atmosphere and tension throughout the film, and he muddles viewers’ emotions by inserting scenes that are both arousing and frightening, many (but not all) of them involving a woman (Elena Anaya) whom we assume was herself a burn victim getting a new lease on life from Dr. Ledgard.
But, of course, not everything as is it seems in this film, and that’s one welcome twist on the Frankenstein code. After it’s over, you can almost see traces of Edgar Allan Poe as well. The Tell-Tale Skin?
“The Skin I Live In” is rated R for disturbing violent content including sexual assault, strong sexuality, graphic nudity, drug use, and language.
Every skin-pore, every nipple and areola pops with clarity, but it’s the art direction and set design that are most striking. There’s a clinical starkness to the lab portion of the doctor’s house, and an clean, contemporary design to the living quarters, which are decorated by massive works of art that dominate every room, as if to suggest that the doctor is himself an artist. In 1080p it looks marvelous, transferred to a 50GB disc via an AVC/MPEG-4 codec that’s just about perfect. Check that. Since I can’t think of a negative, I guess it IS perfect. Detail is superb, black levels are right-on, skin tones are natural, colors are pleasingly saturated, and I didn’t notice anything amiss as a result of the transfer. “The Skin I Live In” is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
Clear and resonant. Those are the two words that describe the featured DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio in Spanish, with subtitles in English, English SDH, and French. There’s also a French DTS-HD MA 5.1, though, in all honesty, I didn’t give it a listen. While I’d stop short of calling this an enveloping or dynamic soundtrack, the clarity is striking . . . especially in the silences. And as any Hitchcock lover knows, that’s where the aural “money shots” are.
The best feature for Almodóvar fabs us a 75-minute “Evening with Pedro Almodóvar” at USC, moderated by Anne Thompson. Lots of ground is covered, though the format seems a little stiff. Then there’s “The Making of The Skin I Live In,” a 13-minute behind-the-scenes fly-on-the-wall look at filming, intercut with clips. A three-minute feature shows the director and stars on the Red Carpet of the New York premiere, and there’s a theatrical trailer. Other than that, there’s BD Live content (does anyone care?) and a nice bonus, a DVD of the film.
Although snubbed by the Oscar machine, “The Skin I Live In” is a solid drama-thriller that offers the best contemporary take on the Frankenstein tale that I’ve seen in a long while.