Saturday, 3 September 2011

the skin i live in (w&d pedro almodóvar)

The credits of a film are a sure fire way to assess its production values, as well as to gain some kind of an inkling of the director's attention to detail. The credits for Almodóvar's latest last about a quarter of an hour, suggesting no expense was spared. Towards the very end, after the caterers and the music and the acknowledgments and the artwork and Gaultier and so on, there comes a list of the books featured in the film. This list consists of half a dozen or so books. I'd been trying to spot their titles during the film but the shots were always too quick or opaque. So here they were. Included in the list were Alice Munro and, at the top, Dawkins' The Selfish Gene. I've read neither but I appreciate that the director probably has. The books aren't quoted from, so I presume they don't need to be listed in the credits, but they are. This is both attention to detail and a director mapping out the wider cultural context within which the film has been made.

That attention to detail is apparent in every aspect of the film. From the casting (Banderas surprisingly watchable) to the art design (Ledgard's home-operating theatre feels just medical enough to be convincing and sufficiently beautiful to adorn rather than blemish the film). As well as the script. In the Anglo-Saxon world there's a lot of talk about the rules of scriptwriting, the do's and the don'ts. Almodóvar drives a train through all of it. The film evolves into an hour-long flashback. A flashback which is repeated and dissected. Cut up in much the same way Banderas' plastic surgeon restructures bodies. It spins a two hour supertanker narrative out of the most absurd of stories, a narrative which has its own logic and obeys its own rules, coming to a grinding halt not with a bang but a whisper.

This is intelligent movie-making on a grand, theatrical scale, the sort of thing Hollywood used to do, once upon a time, but struggles to get away with today. When you boil down the ingredients what's left at the bottom of the petri dish are absurd, even vulgar notions that should make for a preposterous fiasco. (Gender/ mothers/ men dressed as tigers etc.) But the old masters know what they're doing. Film is a kind of sleight-of-hand. Images are slotted together to build up a universe. Stirred with music and editing. The opening fifteen minutes or so of La Piel Que Habito somehow makes you believe that Banderas is a plastic surgeon who has concocted a hyper-resistant human skin out of pigflesh. And is now using these bizarre skills to go about the Frankenstein process of re-animating his dead wife. Step outside the world which is being conjured for no more than a moment and you'd find yourself shouting: It's balderdash!, or other appropriate expressions. But the skill of the film-making keeps you hooked.

When Almodóvar is on top of his game it's a bit like reading a novel by Huysmans or Blaise Cendras or Edgar Allen Poe. He seduces you into entering a parallel world which seems to occupy its own reality, a reality that you, the audience, can participate in. The novelist has the advantage that  he or she does not have to make you see the world they have concocted. The filmmaker truly has to become a conjurer, brainwashing the audience into accepting everything that's put before their eyes. This doesn't have to mean that the brain ceases to work: in the most skilful application of the craft a filmmaker provokes a kind of conscious brainwashing. It's a fine art, and in La Piel Que Habito, the maestro pulls it off.

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