Sunday, November 6, 2011

In his own skin

Pedro Almodóvar has never been one of my favourite filmmakers – the key evidence is that I’ve never felt much impulse to see any of his movies a second time - but it’s hard to resist his escalating status as a cinematic treasure, the Betty White of art cinema (although not quite that old, and a little taller). At his best, his films are gorgeous artifacts of visual and narrative design, scintillatingly alive and curious. The limitation is that you never take much away from them, beyond a general appreciation for life in all its variation. That’s not negligible of course. His early films, made with extremely limited resources, were regarded as scandalous and boundary-pushing, but Almodóvar was a highly attractive and proficient boundary-pusher (maybe my comparison above should have been with Ellen DeGeneres): essentially good-natured, in love with classical melodrama, personally affable, with a near-genius for crafting accessibly twisted narratives (he’s the king of the flashbacks). In 1999 he won the foreign film Oscar for All about my Mother, and won another one a few years later for the screenplay of Talk to Her. He’s now one of the few directors whose name represents a guarantee of sorts.

The Skin I Live In

Of course, that implies a degree of repetition, and Almodóvar represents an extreme case study in recycling. Writing in Slate recently after rewatching all his films, June Thomas said: “Experiencing the Almodóvar filmography is like stepping into one of those endlessly repeating M.C. Escher paintings. Some motifs recur so frequently that I feared for my sanity. You know how, in police procedurals, the cops search a conspiracy-crazed suspect’s home and find the walls obsessively covered in newspaper clippings and photographs? That was me, totting up the number of movies in which Almodóvar characters use aliases (12), visit pharmacies (4), or keep unusual pets (3).” It’s all part of his appeal of course, evoking the old days when the great European auteurs were also brand names. Woody Allen occupies a similar kind of spot on the American spectrum, although the two have little in common otherwise (Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem aside).

Almodóvar’s new film The Skin I Live In probably isn’t his best – unlike Thomas, I have no desire to go back and figure out where in the spectrum it should fall (she put it ninth out of the eighteen he’s made) – but it’s spectacularly Almodóvarian, while occupying somewhat novel territory for him. The nature of the new territory might be viewed as a bit unambitiously pulpy though – it’s the mad scientist, carrying out unethical experiments in his creepy castle (for this purpose, a wonderful looking villa in Toledo). Antonio Banderas (who made his name in Almodóvar’s earlier movies, but hadn’t worked with him for the past two decades) plays the gifted surgeon, and the movie starts off with a kick-ass iconic puzzle – he keeps a gorgeous young woman locked up in an upstairs room, wearing a figure-hugging body stocking (I guess that might count in the “unusual pets” category?). Early on, we figure out he’s operated on her, giving her the face of his dead wife, but who is she? Is she actually the wife, having somehow survived the disfiguring tragedy that officially killed her? Is she his daughter, who was grievously traumatized after witnessing her mother’s death? I wish I could tell you, just because I’d like to see how the explanation actually looks when you write it down. But that would be a spoiler among spoilers.

Maintaining identity

By any normal measure, the plot is nuts. But Almodóvar plays it very straight, with such sumptuous conviction that you just about buy it. The material is potentially lurid to say the least, but the tone is sober – Thomas based her mid-range ranking on finding the tone “unusually dour” with an absence of light relief. That’s true enough – I think the light relief would be in what goes through your head as you watch it. But the idea of making such a straight-faced movie around this topic, and then pulling it off, is rather stunning in itself. At one point, we learn the doctor’s housekeeper is actually his mother – her wealthy employers at the time couldn’t have their own child, so she gave then her illegitimate son to raise – and that her acknowledged son, a sleazeball who had an affair with the doctor’s deceased wife, is actually his brother. In previous Almodóvar movies, such revelations would be at the heart of the matter, but here it’s just a throwaway. The serious point, perhaps, is that we can either allow ourselves to be defined by past traumas and compromises, or we can focus on what’s true and lasting (the movie ends rather wistfully and sweetly, on a poignant reunion of sorts). The Skin I Live In is certainly a fairly extreme parable on what constitutes one’s core identity (although, again, discretion prevents me from expanding further).

The movie is very easy to criticize, on any number of fronts. But I feel less inclined to pick at it than I normally do at Almodóvar’s films, because…I may as well come clean, I just loved watching the thing. Next thing you know, I’ll be tuning into Hot in Cleveland.

The Illusionist

Jacques Tati is one of my favourite filmmakers, although he was only able to make six full-length films during his life. Sylvain Chomet, who previously made The Triplets of Bellville, took one of Tati’s old script ideas and used it as the basis of his animated film The Illusionist: it came out last year and is now on DVD and cable. The storyline follows a down-on-his-luck French magician, animated to resemble Tati himself, who comes to try his luck in Scotland; after he performs in a Highland village, a young woman latches onto him and accompanies him to Edinburgh, where they end up living in a cheap hotel. It’s a peculiar little film, because while the character looks like Tati and one can imagine him in many of the situations, Chomet’s overall approach doesn’t evoke Tati at all. Films like Playtime and Mon Oncle constantly evoke a sense of being stranded: in one way or another, his people have lost the thread of modernity and its innovations and rhythms. The films avoid easy identification or pay-offs, using very few close-ups and uniquely unconventional pacing. This only vaguely applies to The Illusionist – it’s certainly slow and low-key by the standards of a Pixar film say, but the effect is much more conventionally sentimental than the master would ever have allowed himself to be. It’s unclear why one would labour so lovingly and painstakingly to resurrect the ghost of Tati, and then force him to occupy skin that’s plainly not his own.

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