“Don’t look at the surfaces,” says Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) during one of the more sane moments in Pedro Almodóvar’s fantastically nutty The Skin I Live In. His words sum up Almodóvar’s core motif: the organic relationship between layers of emotion and trauma. The Spanish director melds his consistent themes of conflicted sexual identity, family struggle, and interconnected paths with an unsettling combination of warm compositions and sinister desires. The combination is unsettling and fascinating. The Skin I Live In revolves around Ledgard’s attempt to construct a new type of human skin using the beautiful Vera (Elena Anaya) as a human guinea pig. Held captive in Ledgard’s posh villa, Vera’s sleek body is covered in a body suit that only accentuates her angular curves. She bares a striking resemblance to Ledgard’s dead wife, burned to death in a car crash.
Still, that’s only the distrusting façade of The Skin I Live In, and to divulge any more would be to ruin the truly nasty plot turns and reveals. There’s of course a flashback structure, but Almodóvar uses temporal space in exciting ways, jumping through time with an attention to the darker reaches of fragile memory. The director’s invigorating compositions guide the eye toward darkness by way of primary colors (the image of dildos lined up in descending size is particularly telling), adding texture to almost every inch of the frame. Moral and ethical boundaries are only the platforms for Almodóvar’s nastiest intentions, and the repellant nature of the narrative is amplified by the strangely sunny lighting design. Almodóvar wants to display his worst nightmares in the brightest of natural light.
While many have deemed The Skin I Live In beautiful but hollow, the assertion ignores the fact that Almodóvar insists on reveling in multiple façades despite the consequence. The outlandish dialogue, the obsessive focus on video monitors, and the juxtaposition of multiple faces in any one frame proves Almodóvar’s law of surface-level desire. There’s also paintings covering Ledgard’s mansion, all contorting limbs and faceless bodies, ciphers trying to regain their slipping identity. The Skin I Live In constructs a colorful and dynamic purgatory for the fragmented human versions of these drawings, men and women gracefully sliding toward a rude mental awakening. Their descent is intoxicating.
Made in 1962, Masaki Kobayashi’s Hara-kiri turns the classic samurai standoff into a ticking time bomb primed to explode at any moment. Each astutely crafted sequence unveils shards of character conflict and political allegory, creating a tableau built from failing traditions and rigid codes. After seeing his impotent and droll remake, Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai, it’s clear Takashi Miike understands little to nothing about what made the original so sharp. His textured but hollow 3D adaptation changes small but key plot elements, disavows the original’s pressurized pacing, and eliminates the mystical qualities of the story’s bookend sequences. Miike seems to be lost in a forest of iconography, unwilling to engage the complex ideas forming their foundation.
For the first act, Miike follows the original’s story almost exactly, introducing a destitute ronin (Ebizô Ichikawa) who asks a well-respected Samurai faction if he can commit harakiri in their courtyard to enter the afterlife with honor. Once the film jettisons backward in time to investigate the man’s vengeful motivations, it’s easy to pinpoint where Miike goes terribly wrong. Instead of structuring the labyrinthine story like a mystery (as the original masterfully does), he proposes the entire flashback sequence as an extended and sluggish melodrama. This decision resolutely brings the entire momentum of the film to a sudden halt. While Kobsayashi jumps back and forth in time to juxtapose the rage causing this fractured perspective, Miike is more interested in conventional and laborious cause and effect.
Maybe most heinously, Miike destroys the ending by recreating the final massacre as a bloodless lesson in unmitigated humility. By not drenching the close-quarters temple with spurts of blood and broken bamboo, Miike undermines the entire central premise of the film as a savage critique of the contradictory institutional regulations of a dying samurai culture. Not surprisingly, the great Tatsuya Nakadai’s fuming and magnetic volatility is never matched, layers of performance lost on the new cast, specifically the overdone lead (Ichikawa). Coming off the invigorating 13 Assassins remake, Mike’s complete and utter failure is by far the most disappointing revelation at Cannes. My belly hurts.
Speaking of painful experiences, the relevant and shocking Skoonheid (competing in Un Certain Regard) tackles an often-ignored social issue (homosexuality) in modern South African cinema. The second film by director Oliver Hermanus takes us into the stressful existence of Francois (Charlie Keegan), a middle-aged family man who hides in a self-constructed sexual closet that is about to explode. Francois’s self-loathing comes to a boil when he meets his daughter’s new boyfriend, a handsome college student who becomes the central object of his affection.
Hermanus does an excellent job of constricting space, using a combination of slow pans, tilts, and zooms to lead the audience’s gaze through a maze of cramped interiors (the opening shot is especially brilliant). This deeply disturbing jaunt lulls the viewer into a rhythm of sameness before destroying all notions of safety through graphic sex scenes and violence. Skoonheid is a dynamic character study of a human cannonball waiting to rip through the walls of lifelong repression, but it’s the most difficult cinematic experience I’ve had at Cannes.