Skin-Deep Storytelling

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.

Uday was unhinged to an extent that his father can appear, as he does occasionally here, as some kind of benign elder statesman, shaking his head at his son’s wild exploits. A bride is systematically sexually abused on her wedding day, resulting in her suicide; a court rival has his stomach sliced open to reveal his guts; young schoolgirls are picked up and raped. Some have complained that there is nothing we didn’t already know here, and that to run through it all again is simply an exercise in cheap sensationalism and voyeurism. (I’m not so sure about this — I think much of it will be news to many in the multiplex audiences.) Certainly there’s a lack of dramatic depth, and little nuance: Latif and Uday are drawn like Jekyll and Hyde, even though there has apparently been some doubt cast on the reliability of the body-double’s memoir. But given that’s how it’s being played, Cooper does an excellent job in both roles, all idiot grins and swivelling eyes as the sadistic Uday, and quiet fear and loathing as his reluctant shadow. Cooper is probably best known to you as the flirtatious, most sexually precocious of Alan Bennett’s History Boys, or as the love interest to Keira Knightley’s Duchess of Devonshire. In this, his first genuinely  starring role, he is like an earthier, swarthier Jude Law crossed with Peter Lorre. His extraordinarily large eyes alone require VistaVision. Given more headline roles, he could end up being Britain’s biggest male movie star.

Stars of the conventional kind are not really required in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, one of the more recent blockbuster offerings and sequel — or prequel — to Tim Burton’s flaccid and overblown remake of the Charlton Heston cult classic. Superior to the Burton film, its narrative is straightforward and exciting-monkeys being experimented on become smarter and smarter-and its moral is simple: don’t mess with Mother Nature. The apes of course are no longer actors with monkey masks; the product of “performance capture” animation, they are what you might call “hyper-real.” We might not truly believe in them, but are impressed enough with how they’ve been created for the screen to go along with it all. The ending leaves us in no doubt that this is just the second in what is obviously intended to be a long-running series, the success of which will rely on the producers being smart enough to realise that while it might be popular (and lucrative) there is no hope of it ever replacing the shock of the original.

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