The Skin I Live In & Albert Nobbs

December 24, 2011
Pedro Almodóvar and Elena Anaya, The Skin I Live In
Pedro Almodóvar and Elena Anaya, The Skin I Live In

Celebrated directors are invariably cinemaphiles who have watched favourite movies so often they can almost recite them. This is the case with Francois Truffaut and Jim Jarmusch, for instance, but few wear their influences on their sleeve as boldly as Pedro Almodóvar. His new feature, The Skin I Live In (La Piel que Habito) is almost encyclopaedic in its references, beginning with the first frame, which deliberately echoes the opening shot of Toledo in Bunuel’s Tristana. It is not till the end that this quotation will reveal its full significance.

As the movie progresses one absorbs a bewildering series of allusions. There are obvious nods to James Whale’s Frankenstein movies, to Hitchcock’s Vertigo and above all, to Georges Franju’s horror masterpiece, Eyes without a Face. In the notes that accompany this film Almodóvar kindly identifies a range of other allusions that provoke the ‘Ah-ha!’ reflex, including Mario Bava’s comic book romp, Danger: Diabolik.

It might actually be preferable to know nothing about these precursors because I found myself constantly distracted by twinges of déjà vu. The postmodernist penchant for quotation and cross-referencing is so ingrained in Almodóvar’s DNA that it is difficult to lose oneself in his stories or empathise with any of the main characters, no matter how good the acting. His protagonists are never fully rounded individuals but vehicles for exploring a tissue of ideas. Add on the unsettling nature of his psycho-sexual obsessions, and it feels as though these are films to be studied not simply watched.

Having said that, Almodóvar has made tremendous progress since his crude early efforts which were primarily intended to apply the electric cattle prod to Spanish audiences emerging from the Franco era. The Skin I Live In is probably his most sophisticated production to date, albeit a variation on an identifiable genre or two. It is also a step forward in terms of pacing and sheer entertainment value.

The film is a contemporary version of the ‘mad scientist’ movie, complete with the latest medical and digital technology. At the same time it presents a new twist on the age-old tale of Pygmalion, the sculptor who falls in love with his own creation. Imagine a mad scientist flick refreshingly free of gore, cross-bred with My Fair Lady shorn of its songs and sentimentality.

There is no room for sentiment in the character of surgeon, Dr. Robert Ledgard, because he is presented as a sociopath with no feelings for others; at best a figure so repressed and bottled up that his true emotions never make it to his face. Antonio Banderas plays this deadpan role with chilling effectiveness.

To say too much about the story would be to spoil the many surprises it throws up. No summary could do justice to the intricate web of details that keeps adding another layer of complexity. All one needs to know is that Ledgard is keeping a young woman called Vera prisoner in his mansion, seemingly as part of an experiment he is conducting on the creation of a new and better kind of skin. Inevitably these experiments transgress all ethical guidelines, but this is of no concern to the doctor.

We soon learn that Ledgard’s transgressions go far beyond our initial assumptions. Vera is both a human guinea pig and a work of art. Her name means “true”, but she is anything but.

In Elena Anaya, Almodóvar has found an actress with a skin of such flawless perfection she looks almost post-human. In the comfortable, totally neutral room that serves as her prison cell, Vera is kept under constant observation. She can be monitored from the kitchen downstairs by Ledgard’s loyal housekeeper, Marilia (Marisa Paredes), and viewed on a wall-sized screen by her captor, who loves to sit and study his handiwork at leisure. She finds distraction in yoga, and in books on the art of Louise Bourgeois.

This calm, clinical environment is disrupted by an unexpected visit from Marilia’s criminal son, Zeca (Roberto Álamo). The relationship between captor and captive is permanently altered, and the balance of power begins to change.

Much of the story unfolds in flashback, as we learn about Legard’s wife, Gal, who was badly burnt in an automobile accident; and his disturbed daughter, Norma. His experiments may have begun in a spirit of vengeance, but we soon realise that any emotional involvement is ultimately less significant than his passion for scientific investigation.

This amoral science is on a collision course with Ledgard’s flawed personality. He is a study in the persistence of human weakness in even the most steely personas. Vera is a demonstration of the deep-rooted nature of personal identity. She shows us that self and self-image are more than skin deep.

Identity problems are front and centre with Albert Nobbs, a film set in late nineteenth century Dublin, about a middle-aged butler who has harboured a secret for his entire working life. Albert is really a woman who has spent so long playing the role of a man that any traces of feminity have become distant memories that conjure up a blend of nostalgia and anxiety.

If Almodóvar’s mad doctor film encourages us to view the characters with scientific detachment, Albert Nobbs plays delicately upon the heartstrings. Glenn Close is brilliant in the lead role, which must be one of the most difficult of her career, as much for the accent as the cross-dressing. Close originally played this role in an off-Broadway production in 1982 and has laboured ever since to bring it to the screen. Not only has she co-produced the film, she has collaborated on an excellent script with novelist John Banville, and Gabriella Prekop.

Ten years ago Close almost made the movie with director Istvan Szabo, whose name remains in the writing credits. Today’s version is the work of Rodrigo Garcia, son of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and director of Mother and Child (2009). That movie featured outstanding performances from its leads, and Albert Nobbs also derives much of its power from Garcia’s ability to get results from a high quality cast including Janet McTeer as the house painter, Hubert Page, and Mia Waskikowska as the young maid, Helen. There are also veterans such as Brendon Gleeson and Pauline Collins; and Aaron Johnson, who played John Lennon in Nowhere Boy (2009).

If Janet McTeer playing someone called Hubert sounds a bit odd, apparently there was more cross-dressing going on in old Dublin than we might have suspected. The wonder of this story is that it contains no suggestion of camp, no snickering gags about homosexuality. Although the entire film hinges on the puzzle of Albert’s sexual identity the pieces never quite resolve themselves into a picture. Albert is a painfully introverted character, well aware that she is not a man, but hardly able to remember life as a woman. Her disguise has become a complete persona. When Hubert asks: “What’s your real name?” The reply is: “Albert”.

Although Albert’s pinched features remain vaguely feminine, she is convincing in the diffident, correct role of the professional servant. Somewhere within this puzzle there is a sexual being, but Albert has sublimated this side of herself so effectively she imagines marriage as a form of exalted companionship, with many cosy cups of tea. When she discovers that Hubert lives as a married man with another woman, she begins to dream that she might do the same. Her chaste courtship of the maid, Helen, is a remarkable affair – funny, painful and poignant.

It would be worth seeing this movie for one scene alone: when Albert and Hubert dress in women’s clothing and take a stroll along the beach. Imagine if you can, two middle-aged women used to playing the role of men, feeling completely self-conscious in dresses. It is a magnificent piece of acting.

This film has been called “witty” and “charming”, but these are very soft terms to describe a story that gets steadily more involving as we watch Albert cross the line from ambition to delusion. There is a fatalism in this story, a sense that it won’t end well, but it makes for compulsive viewing. This atmosphere of muted tragedy is inconceivable in a film by Almodóvar, and as rare as the thylacine among the recent offerings from Australian directors.

Albert Nobbs is a period piece that makes us suddenly aware of the enlightened sexual mores we take for granted. We learn that Albert adopted his role partly because of the lack of opportunities for women, partly because of a violent assault that convinced her it was better to live as a man.

What seems most surprising is that all Albert’s years as a butler have left her so naïve in relation to sexual matters. Such things may have been rarely spoken of in polite society during the Victorian era, but there were outlets for every form of desire. The only joy to be had in the small, lonely room where Albert hoards her tips and spends the bulk of her life is the dream of a better life as the owner of a small tobacco shop. It may not be everyone’s sexual fantasy, but as we are drawn into Albert’s world it appears a tantalising vision of paradise.

Published by the Australian Financial Review, December 24, 2011

The Skin I Live In, Spain. Rated MA 15 +, 117 minutes

Albert Nobbs, UK/Ireland. Rated M, 103 minutes