Sunday, May 22, 2011

Is "The Skin I Live In" as horrifying as "Zany Dick!"? and, How should film critics handle "spoilers"?

Thanks to a contest sponsored by Stella Artois, a group of American beer drinkers won a trip to the Cannes Film Festival to attend the premiere of a new film featuring Antonio Banderas, the charming and dashingly good-looking performer who played Puss in Boots and Zorro in several family-friendly movies, and directed by the idiosyncratic director Pedro Almodovar, who brought us such whimsically twisted films as "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," "Talk to Her," and "All About my Mother." Those movies all had a bit of a dark side, but still had a light touch.

Oh, how excited they must have been! A trip to France! A trip to the famous Cannes Film Festival! A chance to see a big time premiere of a movie featuring an internationally renowned actor, directed by an internationally renowned (and Academy Award winning) director! The anticipation must have been... downright sickening.
Spanish director Pedro Almodovar's latest thriller, "The Skin I Live In," had filmgoers fleeing the theater Thursday night at its gala premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, due to some aggressively violent and disturbing content.
There are a lot of "booing" at Cannes stories, along with "everyone left the theater" at Cannes stories, along with "the movie got a ten minute standing ovation" stories at Cannes, and who knows how exaggerated those are. But this particular story was too amusing to pass up.

Apparently, "This Skin I Live In" is a sort of let's say dark movie. Click over to read more in-depth descriptions of depravity and unpleasantness, if you're interested. I'm not cutting and pasting more from the story because I'm not sure how much of it qualifies as "spoilers." And I know how some people just hate "spoilers." In reading some other reviews of the film, it looks as though the Fox 411 story might have revealed some supersecret plot points.

Here's something from First Showing's review:
As much as I'd love to dive into a full discussion on this film, there are certain story elements which I dare not spoil and will stay away from ruining. The basic plot is that Antonio Banderas plays a rich, genius surgeon/doctor who is keeping a women locked up in his lavish home. He's not mean to her and is pretty much just holding her to keep her pure and untouched. At first we see he's attempting to develop skin so tough that it won't burn, but we soon discover he has darker intentions and we're thrown down the twisted Almodovar rabbit hole that is crazier than anyone could imagine.
How can a critic discuss a film without discussing it? Digital Spy's review pussyfoots even more:
Hopping back and forth in time, the film follows cosmetic surgeon Robert (Banderas) as he copes with the fallout of a car accident which left his wife horrifically burned and scarred. To say much more would be to give the game away, but as the twists and turns build up you find yourself occasionally gasping in disbelief or instead stifling giggles - most of them surely intentional - in your fist. There are some pleasingly dry nods to the surgical torture porn of Saw and Hostel, but there's nothing graphic or unpleasantly gratuitous here.
Wait -- "nothing graphic or unpleasantly gratuitous (as opposed, I assume, to pleasantly gratuitous) here"? Well then why did all those people supposedly walk out on it during its big premiere?

The Hollywood Reporter goes further in describing the plot of the film, but still gives us this:
To describe any further the story, written by Agustin and Pedro Almodóvar from a novel by Thierry Jonquet, would spoil several surprises. While Almodóvar is clearly rummaging through old films and film genres that by his own admission include Buñuel, Hitchcock, Lang and Franju as well as Hammer horror and Dario Argento kitsch, he mostly is going after the theme of identity. As the old saying goes, beauty is only skin deep, to which Almodóvar adds that skin can only encase one’s identity or soul. For the skin can change, the soul cannot.
There's a sort of a self-aggrandizement to these "I won't spoil the movie for you" statements. As if the critics are specifically doing us a favor, and want us to know about it. Oh, I could tell you more, but I won't. It's an affectation, and a cop-out. It's the type of thing you say to your friends when you're talking about a movie -- or something you might say on a film buff message board.

It is courteous to not "spoil" a movie, or to offer a warning at the top of a review that you're going to "spoil" it.

Over at the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw bravely bucks the "to reveal any more would spoil it" cliche (great art cannot be spoiled! conversely, if something is already rotten, it cannot be spoiled!), yet still manages to review the film without "spoiling" it.

Aside: How would the Stella Artois contest winners have reacted to being subjected to a screening of my own short animated horror masterpiece, "Zany Dick!"?

It never screened at Cannes, but it did screen at Dragon*con, and the Sydney Underground Film Festival. (Nobody left the screening in disgust -- the film is too short.)

A movie would have to be pretty distressing for me to walk out on it, especially if I'd won a trip to its Cannes Film Festival premiere. I'm not the most delicate consumer of films, but then again, I'm no masochist, either. The only movie I've ever walked out of was "Blade Runner," when I was about seven or eight, or however old I was when that movie came out. (I can't remember why I walked out on it -- maybe it scared me? I saw it years later and I couldn't figure out why I'd left; maybe my little sister wanted to leave?) I would have walked out on Dario Argento's "The Stendahl Syndrome," which I went to see at a midnight screening in Santa Monica in I think 1999, but I was with my friend Michael, and he was my ride. I didn't want to lean over and ask, "Hey, do you mind if I walk out on this movie? I don't need to watch another extended rape scene," without knowing if Michael wanted to walk out, himself. He's the type who would have teased me mercilessly. "Ooooooh, poor baby Ricky can't take another extended rape scene!"

He told me later he would have left if I'd asked. Lesson learned. Not long after that, he and I went to see "Eyes Wide Shut," and I almost asked him if he wanted to walk out on that, too. Because (spoiler alert!) it was effing boring.

Anyway I digress. Sorry that got a bit personal and I like to maintain some distance, in particular when I'm discussing art. Back to "The Skin I Live In." I would probably walk out on the film because its title ends with a preposition. I understand that there is no rule against ending sentences with prepositions. But I don't like it.

"The Skin in Which I Live" is a title of a film on which I would never walk out. In this case, however, I am going to ignore my grammatical concerns and see the film because I am a sucker for stories about mad surgeons, transplants, identity issues -- i.e., Santa Sangre, Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Mad Love, Eyes Without a Face, Choice Cuts, The Hands of Orlac, Sisters, The Lump, X-Files: I Want to Believe, etc.

The movie is based on a novel called Mygale (AKA Tarantula) by Thierry Jonquet. Here's a bit from a review of the English translation:
Mygale -- or Tarantula, as the British edition has it (a more familiar spider-name) -- is, appropriately enough, a spider web of a book, the different threads spun out until it all comes together in its very neat design. Jonquet serves up some extremely unlikely coincidences to get it to all fit together, but most of what he dishes up is so bizarre that one can almost overlook that. Especially in how he builds it up, Jonquet keeps the reader guessing just enough. And, in any case, it's a quick ride.
Perhaps one of the "threads" of the book's next edition could feature a group of contest-winning American tourists who find themselves sent to a French film festival, where they're forced to watch a deeply disturbing film that causes them to run screaming from the theater.

I am now intrigued enough to place the novel on my Project Child Murdering Robot Summer Reading list. So thank you, Stella Artois, for subjecting your contest "winners" to a painful filmgoing experience that led to a spoilerific and possibly exaggerated internet posting about the surprising horrors of attending a film festival. And to Sony Pictures Classics, the company releasing Mr. Almodovar's new film, for doing a fantastic job of promoting your film, by scaring a bunch of contest-winning beer drinkers.

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