Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Two Mad Scientists, One Plan: The Skin I Live In and Victim

I got sent an email offering me a screener of Victim a year or so ago, and because the subject matter sounded like the sort of thing I kind of dig, I asked. Never arrived, and I didn't figure out how to watch it of xfinity's website while it was there. From what scattered reviews I read, it didn't seem like I was missing much.

It popped up on a couple of streaming services again a month or so ago, though - I've heard it's on Netflix, and I found it on SundanceNow. And this will probably be the last time I use that site, because I found that the only way to keep the picture moving along with the soundtrack was to constantly move the mouse pointer around in the "progress bar" area. Not so easy when you're trying to eat a calzone at the same time!

Anyway, here's some reviews, and if you don't mind reading about the plot twists and endings, stick around (or jump to) after the reviews.

La Piel que Habito (The Skin I Live In)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 3 November 2011 in Landmark Kendall Square #8 (first-run)

Pedro Almodovar has been dancing around doing this sort of weird sci-fi/horror movie for years (remember the silent movie sequence in Talk to Her?), and in a way he's still dancing - The Skin I Live In is so grounded in the here and now and focused on the psychological as opposed to the technological that art-house denizens who run screaming from mere "genre" can convince themselves that they're not sharing their genius with their grindhouse cousins. Their loss; the way Almodovar imports those genre elements into his world is part of what makes the movie so delicious.

We start with scientist Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), a brilliant surgeon and researcher presenting a paper on the potential for synthetic skin to a conference - a topic near to his heart after his wife was horrifically burned in a car accident years ago. His colleagues are so alarmed by the ethical problems of his proposal that he assures them that it is only theoretical - and then goes home to see how the most recent graft is taking to Vera (Elena Anaya), the test subject he is keeping so isolated that she kept locked in a room in his estate, with Robert and longtime family servant Marilla (Marisa Paredes) mostly speaking to her via TV screens. And as we come to know more about Robert's complicated obsession, it becomes very clear that this set-up is not merely the result of fears of contamination.

The Skin I Live In at times seems to have more ideas in play than it knows what to do with - in fact, my impression was often of two similar screenplays not quite fully merged into one - and in the hands of a lesser director than Almodovar, it likely would have been a trite mess (I don't know how many threads are Almodovar's own and how many come from the source novel, Thierry Jonquet's Tarantula). There are thoroughly extraneous bits of soap opera, on the one hand, while Robert and Vera seem to have two different experiments and plotlines going on that are close to being at cross-purposes. Almodovar strives to make this into complexity rather than contradiction, and manages it about half the time.

Full review at EFC.


* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 10 December 2011 in Jay's Living Room (SundanceNow streaming)

If I was going to see and review Victim (and let us assume for the purposes of this paragraph that such a thing was unavoidable), it probably would have been better to have seen it when it first appeared last year and not after seeing a certain movie that came out a month ago. It wouldn't have ranked higher without a similar movie showing how to do every wrong thing this one does right, but I also wouldn't have been tempted to make the entire review a compare and contrast.

The film opens with a young girl (Jennifer Howie) being attacked by an unseen assailant; some time later, we see a man (Stephen Weigand) annoying a waitress in a bar. On leaving, though, he is also attacked, and wakes up in a bare cell in a basement. An old record on female deportment is being piped in, there's a young girl's diary there for him to read, and every once in a while his captors - eccentric surgeon Dr. Volk (Bob Bancroft) and hulking mute Mr. George (Brendan Kelly) - will take him away for a procedure to break his body and mind. At one point, he manages to make a 911 call, and the detective who picks up the case (Stacy Haiduk) is far more curious than seems reasonable, but...

Victim doesn't run on a completely straight track, but near enough so. For a horror chamber piece like this, with only four characters really in play, there's not a lot of room to build tension by killing characters off. So, tension has got to come from somewhere else, and while Volk certainly has a cruel fate planned for his victim, the getting there is mechanical. After the first time Weigand's character tries to escape, Volks' plan mostly proceeds without a hitch. There's never the sense that escape is possible, that Volk is feeling conflicted, that there might be a wedge to drive between Volk and George. All writers Michael Hultquist & Robert Martinez and directors Matt Eskandari & Michael A. Pierce have to give the audience is dread at what is going to happen, and even when even the big steps along the way are played as banal and emotionless. There's never a jolt or a revelation to get the audience more invested until the end, and even then it's either expected or nonsensical.

Full review at EFC.

Welcome back! Fair warning: We're going to be talking about things that could be considered spoilers from here on out, and while I tried to keep the reviews themselves pretty vague - probably too much so in Victim's case, as the advertising is pretty up-front as to what it's about - I'll write more freely here.

Anyway, as the title of the entry makes clear, I grouped these two movies together for a reason - they are both about surgeons who kidnap the men that they hold responsible for their daughters' deaths, getting their revenge by performing sexual reassignment surgery. Both seem to set the victims on similar courses of having their minds reshaped in the same way as their bodies, although as in all other aspects, Pedro Almodovar goes about it in a much more interesting way that the makers of Victim.

In Victim, the nameless title character is pretty much brainwashed in what seems to be relatively short order. I may have missed it, what with the choppy picture and all, but there was never a solid feeling of the passage of time in that movie; the period before the "Four Months Later" jump seems like it could have happened over the course of a couple of weeks. Plus, for as brilliant a surgeon as Volk may have been, that doesn't necessarily imply any knowledge of psychological warfare. Still, he seems to break his prisoner in relatively short order, and on a schedule. As a result, the mental transformation is not only less believable, but it robs the audience of its protagonist. The victim becomes someone else with no connection to who he/she was before, and the filmmakers don't have the curiosity to explore whether he/she deserves the vengeance Volk has planned for her.

The Skin I Live In, on the other hand, gives us a much more intriguing evolution. We meet Vera before flashing back and meeting Vicente, and the mental metamorphosis is done in a way that demonstrates what fascinates me about these stories: At a certain point, when he starts to take up yoga, Vicente seems to realize that he needs more than hate and rage: He must be able to function, to find a way to live with what he has become without approving of the path that led him there. Then, when he's attacked by Zeca, the question becomes just how far down the path he's gone, and what this second trauma does to his/her self-image.

The mad scientists are similarly similar in their raw materials, though different in their construction. Antonio Banderas's Robert Ledgard has a series of connected traumas motivating him, and at times his grasp on the situation can seem as muddled as Vincente/Vera's. When I first saw the movie, I tended to think that this may be a weakness, but it works better than expected. In Ledgard's mind, Vicente/Vera is his attempt to rectify the deaths of both his wife and daughter - punishing the person he believes raped his daughter, creating a synthetic skin that will prevent the sort of disfigurement that led to his wife's suicide, and subconsciously creating Vera in his wife's image. What makes him a truly interesting mad scientist is that part of him is genuinely trying to do good, though he embraces how interrelated the processes of creation and destruction are. Volk, meanwhile... Well, he's got great mad scientist hair, but his motivation is very straightforward (punish the accessory to his daughter's "murder"), and the filmmakers miss their chance to tackle any interesting questions raised.

And then there are the finales. By the time Victim reached the end, I already disliked it, but the "four months later" seems like a terrible cheat - even though The Skin I Live In has numerous jumps, we get to see the crucial steps in Vicente's evolution, which we're denied for "Rachel II" - and then George, Volk, and the original Rachel are all dispatched in ways that often seem merely accidental and are not informative. "Not informative" may seem like an odd thing to say, but we do need these scenes to tell us something, specifically who and what the transformed man has become. Does he/she survive because of some universal instinct, some buried portion of the original man who tried to escape re-emerging, or pure chance? It's not clear, and it needs to be. This tells us what the point of the previous seventy minutes has been - is it about being able to rise above victimhood, or a complete defeat at the hands of Volk (even if it is a Pyrrhic victory)? The last shot, of the new Rachel leaving the house and walking away, is probably meant to be ambiguous, but this movie hasn't earned it - we need to know whether the character is going home, retracing the original Rachel's steps, or starting fresh - or we at least need to be able to make the argument for one or the other.

The Skin I Live In, meanwhile, does almost the exact same thing, but Almodovar makes his intent very clear: Vicente reasserts himself, killing his captors. Vera is still very much a changed person, but she knows herself. And after it is done, she further asserts her identity not by heading down a generic road, but by returning to Vincente's mother, though without trying to disguise her new femininity.

This still leaves the movie intriguingly open-ended, and honestly, I'd really like to see someone in Hollywood do a gender-bender story that picks up where The Skin I Live In leaves off. I've always liked this genre, but I think filmmakers have often backed off what really fascinates me about them: How does a person stay true to itself when something that defined him or her at a very basic level is changed? Instead, these stories are presented as something to reverse or forestall, maybe with a helping of "spending time as a woman might make you a better man". That's well and good, but where Vera finds herself at the end of Almodovar's movie is potentially the really good stuff, both in a science-fictional and metaphorical sense.

In the meantime, though, at least we've got The Skin I Live In. And, hey, one can say that Victim isn't a total loss - looking at what the two movies do is a great way to illustrate exactly what great filmmakers do to elevate material over what their their less gifted (or experienced) contemporaries manage.

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