Sunday, March 25, 2012

Skins of the Mother

Almadovar’s latest melodrama – or gender thriller - covers just about everything.

Firstly, he revisits the notion of abduction as he did in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! Apart from the collapse of the euro and the alleged failure of multiculturalism, human trafficking is one of the big social issues in Europe at the moment.

This time the abductor is a clinically cool, almost Frankenstein-like surgeon, Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), who is obsessed with replicating human skin. He says it’s to develop a thick enough hide to resist fire and malaria-infested mosquitoes – a sexy subject for philanthropists like Bill Gates.

But doctor Ledgard has a tragic past and darker purposes, which a fellow scientist points out cross the ethical line by a country mile, which is where our not so good doctor lives – in the country. There in his medieval castle he has his surgery, which he drives to and from in his ultra-expensive white BMW sport coupe.

That’s also where he keeps his captive, Vera, played by Elena Anaya – who looks like an impossibly beautiful brunette model who can also act. The modelling metaphor is not gratuitous: the film was made avec Jean Paul Gaultier’s participation.

Ledgard looks at his exquisite captive lying in the same way as the Venus d’Urbino, a copy of which, of course, adorns his walls. But this is Almadovar, so she is not only his captive, she is also…well, to tell more would be giving away the putative secret of the movie, which takes almost two hours to arrive.

Inevitably there will be the mother-son relationship – two variables – in this film about the auteur’s obsessions with cross-gender identity, youth, neurosis and high fashion.

Men are either dazzlingly handsome, but cold, like Ledgard, or  hot, macho rapists, like his lunatic half-brother. Fathers don't feature, and the mother (Marisa Paredes) takes responsibility for producing two lunatics.

There is only one comic moment in a Bunuel-like detour when a fat man (played by the director’s brother and producer) sells his wife’s old clothes to a dress shop lady to ensure that if his wife does come back to him, as she usually does after she's left him, she won’t have anything to wear.

Otherwise it’s all beautiful people to look at, beautifully scripted, shot, acted, scored (by Alberto Iglesias), dressed - the works. In fact, it’s probably European cinema at its peak, but as only half a European I found it difficult to buy into it as a cautionary tale of how revenge corrupts - or how sexual appearances should be treated as merely skin deep.

For all its fascinating twists and turns, the tale, if not its auteur, seems to suffer from vagina envy. Dig a bit deeper and you could even read it as being self-hating of the same notion. This isn't helped much by the fact that, for all its supposed anti-superficiality, it resembles the epitome of narcissism: a glossy fashion magazine.

Neil Sonnekus

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