The Skin I Live In (15)
dir: Pedro Almodóvar
What's wrong with Antonio Banderas? It is tempting, contemplating the melting chocolate eyes to say as Audrey Hepburn once did of Cary Grant: "Nothing!" But that isn't true. Banderas is like Spain under General Franco: he looks calm and stable - and hotter than the Malaga beachfront - but there's a lot happening out of the public gaze, some of it possibly quite unpleasant. He's not really a Latin lover, which is why Hollywood can't work him out - he's a bona fide weirdo in pretty wrapping.
Pedro Almodóvar noticed this back in the early 1980s - after all, who better than a gay Spaniard reared under a Catholic dictatorship to understand the difference between what you see and what you get? - cast him in five films and made both of them famous, achieving the feat of persuading the English-speaking world to watch perverse tales that thumbed noses at Spain's recently expired regime and, more controversially, required subtitles.
Then, after 1990's Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, Banderas ran off to Hollywood, where his most memorable role was as the manipulative tabby in Shrek: a disembodied voice. Now he's back, and Almodóvar's latest film is both a love letter to his long-lost leading man and, not coincidentally, the nastiest piece of work he has made yet.
That is no insult: Almodóvar is great at nasty. He has written most of his 18 films, and even when he adapts pre-existing work (this is a loose reworking of a novel by the French crime writer Thierry Jonquet), it's a safe bet that rape, murder and mayhem will star, and that all will look disconcertingly good: in his world, crime may not pay but it sure scrubs up well. And, talking of scrubbing up, what better role for a man whose flaws are all invisible than that of plastic surgeon - a skilled refashioner of surfaces, whose own gorgeous exterior hides a weirdness no scalpel can excise?
Robert (Banderas) is gifted but not popular. The scientists are angry at him for using illegal techniques to create a burn-resistant skin substitute. His colleagues are cross that he no longer lets them use his plush, fortress-like home as a clinic. And his maid, Marilia, is miffed at having to care for the beautiful young woman he has incarcerated upstairs to play unwilling monster to his Dr Frankenstein. As a series of flashbacks unfurls, we discover that Robert has reason to be troubled - his life has been full of betrayal and bereavement - but to call his reaction extreme is like saying that Jocelyn Wildenstein has had a little face work done.
Watching Banderas pour honey on toast from a vial that looks oddly like a test tube, then casually lick its lip, is the creepiest moment in the film, and there is plentiful competition. There's humour, but it's blacker than Antonio's locks, and the best joke is that Robert, artist of the epidermis, takes everything at face value. He is trying to redirect his life, casting himself as the Latin lover, but this is Spain, not Hollywood, and nobody is buying his script.
Needless to say, the story is barmy. With Almodóvar that's as much a given as the crowd of regulars: Marisa Paredes as the long-suffering maid, the cinematographer José Luis Alcaine, who can make a drop of blood bloom like a rose garden, or the production designer Antxón Gómez, for whom a film about beautiful surfaces is the perfect playground. And there is the usual multilayering of cultural references, as if the director felt obliged to demonstrate that, while his characters are all maddened monomaniacs, he is nothing of the kind.
I am not convinced. The man shoos his menagerie of crazies on to our screens with astonishing frequency: since 1980, we haven't had to go longer than three years without an addition to the canon. He can't have much time to swan around contemplating art for art's sake.
Still, the sly references are part of the fun. Together with Robert, let's spy on Vera (Elena Anaya), his lovely, suicidal prisoner who turns her despair into art whenever she isn't attempting to carve an ending on her own neck. Lounging naked, she is a replica of the Rokeby Venus, Velázquez's icon of narcissism that was slashed by a suffragette - another woman desperate enough to try to control destiny with a knife. It doesn't matter how many of these visual in-jokes we get (in fact, thanks to Alberto Iglesias's score, a sightless person could enjoy this film), but they are the signature of a film-maker who values a sharp-eyed viewer. He needs to; in this richly populated film, only one character is exactly what he appears to be, and that's a rapist in a tiger costume.
That is a fair description of Almodóvar, too: probing where he's not welcome, superficially attracted to prettiness but more interested in the entrails. No surprise that he has made a film with guts - nor that the whole package looks good enough to eat.