Two years ago, when "Los Abrazos Rotos" came out, I wrote that it could be the beginning of new phase in Almodóvar's career. Having seen his latest film, "La Piel que Habito" I saw nothing that contradicted me. The most obvious, are the absence of his trademark random strange characters (again, no transexuals, no drag queens, although there is a surrogate mother) and the colour palette which has toned down the reds and oranges that intoxicated "La Mala Educación" and "Volver".
I'm still at odds on how much I liked it. In some ways it is an honourable failure, but it kept me interested, even if the first twist was predictable way too soon (partly from the way it's shot and introduced). It is well acted, and the cast, with the exception of the actor playing Vicente and the attemps of Brazilian accents, are very good. The three leads are excellent (I never noticed the leading lady before despite having seen a few films with her). Almodóvar has, I think, admitted the debt he owes to "Les yeux sans visage" ("Eyes without a Face") rather obvious from the iconic mask in the poster but I also picked "Vertigo" (more to that later), the Argentinean film "El Secreto de sus Ojos" (a scene that rhymed with that film's ending), Almodóvar's own "Átame!" and something else that I couldn't identify.
In a house in Toledo, a surgeon (Antonio Banderas) has been testing a new type of artificial skin, one which is strong enough to resist burnings. His guinea pig is a beautiful woman (Elena Anaya) - but who is she and why is he been keeping her prisoner? This is a film which I feel very hard to write about without giving a lot of the plot away - so please consider this a spoiler warning, as I will give most of it away.
While the film's beginning is fairly straightforward, is the second act (the two flashbacks) that make it truly fascinating. The flashbacks are meant to explain to us how and why things have happened. They present a truly dark vision on human nature: whereas the first act could be read partly as a case of Stockholm's Syndrome, the second adds to it a whole new dimension. We now have a rapist being punished by the victim's father (and later raped by the man who started the whole cycle of death and violence) and a much more disturbing case of Pygmalion-like Stockholm's Syndrome. It is also a case of "Vertigo"-like necrophilia, where Banderas's character recreates his dead wife in his prey. And just going a step back, it is interesting how the key moment of the film, the second rape scene, relies heavily on the viewer's perception of the characters involved more than on anything shown. The young man (under the influence of recreational drugs) has no idea that the girl is taking for a walk is incapable of giving consent (or even of understanding sex, as she is just an overgrown child). As the final act starts, we move from sexual politics and a dark thriller, and it crashes down into a convencional ending that reaffirms life and preaches that art can save your soul. I am not so sure if was the ending to expect for such a necrophiliac work - Almodóvar seemed to have lacked Hitchcock's courage.
I like to make two final brief poins: First, the true connection to Brazil isn't explained, but that's just bad editing or writing). Unless the connection is Vera Cruz, the name of Anaya's character - meaning True Cross, it was the original of Brazil. Second, I quite like the unexplored aspect of the bioethics of the film, but sadly that is kept to a small scene where Banderas argues why he should play God.
PS - there are some Spanish posters for the film (like the one just above) which are definitely worth a look.