Cannes (Official Selection) – When plastic surgery goes bonkers, Pedro Almodóvar is the director spinning a yarn around such unpleasantness. Scrubbed and gowned, Paul Martin makes a beeline for the operating theatre.
I blame The Guardian. No, not for the prevalence of feel-bad-do-nothing liberalism amongst the flip flop-wearing chattering classes of north London. Nor for the fact that some people are incapable of making the most basic decisions on cultural matters – what films to see, what bands to like, what books to read – without first gobbling up one of said newspaper's phone book-dimensioned review sections, digesting it thoroughly, and then shitting out all the opinions contained within as if they were the gobbler's own. I'm not even going to have a go at it for the fact its online football pages regularly distract me when I should be work... ooh, Tevez wants out of Man City... sorry. Happens a lot.
I affix zero blame to The Guardian for any of those things (at least not at this precise moment on this precise day). What, however, has got my goat, ground my gears, and urinated on my chipped potatoes from a very great height indeed is that the aforementioned UK organ of news and opinion, some time ago, published an article about Pedro Almodóvar working on an adaptation of Thierry Jonquet's novel, Tarantula. Okay, so no problem there. All fine and dandy, like sour candy.
No, the turd slapped into my face like one of the Three Stooges' cream pies was the description of Jonquet's book provided by the article. I'm not going to reprise that description here, to spare you from sharing in my pain and teeth-gnashing frustration, but to give you an idea of the cataclysmic blunder involved, if Tarantula had been The Sixth Sense then an equivalent summary would have read 'Bruce Willis dies and doesn't realise he's a ghost, till the end when he does'.
Or had Tarantula been Sleuth, the equivalent summary would then have been, 'Michael Caine could be dead, but he's not, and the policeman is actually him in disguise'. And had Tarantula been London's longest-running stage-show and still an excellent night's entertainment for audiences of all ages, The Mousetrap, then the summary would've been 'The policeman is the killer.' That's right. The Guardian gave away the twist of Jonquet's tale, and in less space than it takes an ant to dance the Macarana. Thanks a frickin' bunch.
All of which grotesque trauma meant that as I was sitting through Almodóvar's The Skin I Live In, the filmic fruits of his creative splicing with Jonquet, I was filled with something less than puzzled wonder. I've no doubt that most of my fellow audience members were perplexed by the perverse relationship between plastic surgery whiz Roger Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) and Vera (Elena Anaya), the beauty he keeps isolated at his mansion-cum-clinic in Toledo, she being confined to a minimalist room where he maintains a near-constant vigil over her via closed circuit television cameras. The grey-blue interior of her prison is covered in a virtual wallpaper of indecipherable scrawlings, while she remains clad in a second skin, a flesh-coloured body-stocking.
A cute little mystery, yes. But one which I knew where it was headed as swiftly and surely as I knew that the East 17 reunion was never going to be a seismic event in musical history.
Ray of sunshine in human form that I am, I was still able to locate an upside of this dispelling of narrative tension, mainly in that I now was free to focus on the form and the phrasing, rather than getting too tortuously entangled in The Skin I Live In's labyrinthine plot. And so I found Almodóvar's characteristic bold colours all present and correct, while the flashback/dream mid-section just about functions satisfactorily, given the knowing artifice of the Spaniard's movies.
A lot of the characterisation is very good too, for which director and performers must all take credit. I enjoyed the carnival 'Tiger-man', Zeca (played by Roberto Álamo), a host of iniquitous appetites given corporeal housing in the body of a pitiable lowlife. Elena Anaya, as Vera, is an apposite mix of siren-like seductiveness and lurking despair, but it is Banderas who really dazzles.
Back in tandem with his old cohort, Almodóvar, for the first time in two decades, he is the perfect mesh of outer steel and inner tumult (akin to Pierre Brasseur's authoritarian plastic surgeon in Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face, a movie it is just about impossible not to call to mind when watching The Skin I Live In). It is not so much any great shift of dramatic gears that renders Banderas's turn as Ledgard so compelling, than it is more the actor displaying an old-fashioned movie star magnetism powerful enough to banish memories of his tepid last screen appearance at Cannes, last year, in Woody Allen's You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.
The subtext of the movie is also interesting, with its hints of Hitchcock's Vertigo, as Roger goes about creating (or should that be recreating?) his perfect woman. Vera is modelled on the surgeon's late wife, Gal, but the former's surname of Cruz makes it hard not to think of Almodóvar's own perfect woman, his recent on-screen muse of the same surname, Penélope. A magnetic presence in the director's later films, her absence is scarcely felt here, not least thanks to the magnificence of Banderas.
Rating on a scale of 5 botched facelifts: 4
Release date: UK = 26 August 2011; US = 18 November 2011
Directed by: Pedro Almodóvar
Screenplay by: Pedro Almodóvar, based on the novel 'Tarantula' by Thierry Jonquet
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisia Peredes, Jan Cornet
Cert: UK = TBC; US = TBC
Running Time: 117 minutes