Barely scratching the surface: Elena Anaya and Antonio Banderas in "The Skin I Live In"
When does a psychological horror movie become an arthouse film? When the cognoscenti, in thrall to this or that director, decides it is, I suppose. The Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar is one of this crowd's darlings, with his recurring, wry winks to cinema history, his camp sensibility and, of course, his simply wonderful parts for women, darling. I've always found his dramas to be essentially like soaps on acid, with overblown hairdos and lots of colour blocking. They're technically always highly skilled and occasionally funny, and so, so knowing. Whether they're especially likeable is another matter: I've certainly never really wanted to settle down for a repeat viewing, that's for sure.
His latest, The Skin I Live In, features Antonio Banderas as a rich plastic surgeon who, having lost his wife after a car crash, develops a new form of synthetic skin which is resistant to almost any damage. In his luxurious house he keeps a woman who appears to be some sort of human guinea pig. When his daughter is raped, he goes in search of the culprit. These disparate narrative lines all link up eventually, quite how it is done being the film's big twist, although to reveal it here would be to be a spoilsport. It can be seen coming quite clearly, and the revelation leads to nothing in particular.
Reminiscent of the 1960 French horror classic Eyes Without a Face, this is really the Frankenstein story, with a touch of Rocky Horror Show sensibility, much toned down, and with the part of Igor the faithful hunchbacked sidekick played instead as the good doctor's mothering housekeeper. There's little gore, a few moments of unnecessary violence, some nifty camerawork and a great deal of nice interior design. There is also, of course, zero morality or any hint of judgment. It's this last quality which immediately elevates it, in the eyes of cultural arbiters, to something other than Hollywood bargain basement schlock.
But there is nothing to this film, really. It is simply impossible to care about anybody in this story, its nihilism evident in the fact that I don't think we're even meant to. "But it's so beautiful to look at!" cooed one of my colleagues at the screening, and yes, it is done with a certain style, as is all this director's work. But its sights are set low; if there's anything being said, it's certainly not worth remembering. It is kitsch, when all is said and done, and the arthouse is welcome to it.
More involving, even if in a superficial way, is The Devil's Double, an adaptation of the memoir of Latif Yahia, the unfortunate Iraqi press-ganged into being a body-double for Saddam Hussein's maniac son Uday. The film's publicists have seemed quite happy to sell this by quoting critics' characterisation of it as a sort of Scarface of Arabia, highlighting the sex, violence and spectacularly vulgar displays of wealth, although it probably also has something to do with Dominic Cooper's physicality, which does indeed summon up memories of Al Pacino's sleazy Hispanic gangster.