Category Archives: Psychological Thriller

Review – The Skin I Live In (15) [2011]

Star Rating: 4/5

For a psychological thriller to be worth its while, it invariably has to venture into disturbing realms to the extent that one wonders what sort of a person came up with the ideas. This was arguably the case with Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island and Darren Aranofsky’s Requiem For A Dream and Black Swan. The Skin I Live In, despite being very different to the above-mentioned films, successfully takes us once again into this unsettling territory.

Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) giving the classic 007 pose.

The Skin I Live In (La Piel Que Habito) is a Spanish film, based on Thierry Jonquet’s book, Tarantula. The movie centres round Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas – The Mask of Zorro, Shrek I-IV, Puss In Boots), a genius but deeply troubled plastic surgeon, who specialises in (unethical) skin repair and enhancement. After his teenage daughter, Norma (Blanca Suárez – Shiver, Cowards, The Pelayos), is raped by a boy her own age, called Vicente (Jan Cornet – The Night of the Brother, Camino, Red Lights), Robert decides to kidnap Vicente and punish him. But what does Robert plan to do with Vicente? Does the former wish to use the latter as his laboratorial guinea pig? Or does Robert have something more distressing in mind?

The plot is intelligent and absorbing, with a very unnerving twist. (Don’t worry, no spoilers in this review.) Yet, the storyline suffers from a general lack of clarity. First, one has difficulty knowing which year he/she is watching. Scenes may roll into one another smoothly, but the film skips regularly back and forth over a six year period in a confusing way. Second, one is never sure of Robert’s intentions, even by the end.

Moreover, there are some loose-ends in the plot, and other parts of it are left without purpose or proper explanation, such as the sub-story near the beginning about Robert’s half-brother, Zeca (Roberto Álamo – Football Days, Take My Eyes). Arguably, the reason for the lack of clarity is because the director, Pedro Almodóvar (Talk To Her, Volver, Mina), has gone for a more artistic-style of film, like Lost In Translation and The American. This means that there is relatively little dialogue throughout The Skin I Live In. Instead, one has to figure out the message of the scene via, at times, ambiguous expressions and body-language, particularly from the main character, Robert.

Robert after finding his daughter, Norma (Blanca Suárez), raped.

Playing Robert, the James Bond-/George Clooney-esq Banderas is without doubt the star of the film. In a superb display, Banderas exemplifies an intelligent, stony-faced man filled with tragedy, spite and (perturbing) ambition. No other member of the cast comes close to his level of performance. Marisa Paredes (All About My Mother, The Devil’s Backbone, Mina) may not do a bad job playing Robert’s mother, Marilia. But Marilia lacks the depth of Robert’s personality, which is revealed when she is given the chance to explain herself during a heart-to-heart with the gorgeous Vera (Elena Anaya – Talk To Her, Van Helsing, Room In Rome). Similarly, Elena Anaya, Jan Corbit and Roberto Álamo suffer from the same problems, and aren’t given ample time to express themselves. This, just like aspects of the plot, is to the movie’s detriment.

The quality of some of the acting lets the film down; yet, the same cannot be said for the music. It might sound unconventional and strange, but apart from the one scene with techno music (which is completely out of place) the music achieves Almodóvar’s ambition of giving the scene an ominous and tense feel. (One strike at high a piano key every few seconds; one hit of the drum over the same amount of time; and regular short, sharp notes from string-instruments are not classic ways of building eeriness or tension. Then again, it makes a refreshing change from tacky horror films, like Scream and The Eye, which adopt unbearably long notes from string-instruments, followed by a sudden crescendo to make viewers jump out of their skin.)

Robert's captive, Vicente (Jan Cornet), chained to a wall and drinking from a bucket.

Just as the music sounds odd throughout The Skin I Live In, so too are the aesthetics. Robert’s stunning mansion-cum-residency for his ‘patients’ is filled with large paintings of naked people, with unnaturally round heads and no faces. Just by seeing these, one gets the impression that Robert has some weird tastes long before the film comes to its mentally repelling and horrifying conclusion.

Ultimately, The Skin I Live In has its drawbacks and could have been less confusing. Nevertheless, Antonio Banderas performs brilliantly; and the unconventional nature of the film and the unusual storyline make for psychosomatically disturbing viewing. To Almodóvar’s credit, the film is not just a spin-off of an Aranofsky movie, and adds something new to the genre. Still though, just like with other psychological thrillers, by the end of The Skin I Live In one is likely to question the (in)sanity of the man who put this film together.

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Review – Black Swan (15) [2011]

Star Rating: 4/5

Obsession is a dangerous mindset to fall into. It has the power to consume its victim, and drive him or her to madness. Black Swan may look like it is about ballerinas and Ballet in general, but it is not: it is about obsession, and the psychological effects and the physical strains it can cause someone. Yet, if the film meant to tackle these complex issues acutely, it goes preposterously too far to be taken seriously.

The movie is viewed through the eyes of Nina (Natalie Portman – Star Wars I IIIBrothers, Your Highness), an innocent, pretty but mentally unstable ballerina, who lives with her domineering mother (Barbara Hershey – Falling Down, Hannah and her Sisters). Nina has seemingly devoted her whole life to becoming Odette, the White Swan, in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. But the company she works for has made a slight altercation to the performance: the girl who plays Odette will also have to play her evil twin-sister, Odile, the Black Swan. Whilst Nina fits the role of the White Swan perfectly, she has to learn how to become manipulative and provocative in order to play the Black Swan.

Thomas urging Nina to ‘feel’ and ‘respond’ to his touch as the latter needs to learn how to become the Black Swan.

Nina is determined to play both roles flawlessly. But her obsession with perfection exposes her already fragile mind, as well as her various insecurities. It is not long before reality and Nina’s perceptions of reality (hallucinations?) start to thread together to look like one and the same. Paranoia goes hand in hand with this too. A younger and, perhaps, even more beautiful girl, called Lily (Mila Kunis – Family Guy, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Friends with Benefits), joins the company making Nina believe that she is going to be replaced as the lead performer. Consequently, Nina works ever harder, pushing herself to the brink (and beyond), in order to please and convince her demanding boss, Thomas (Vincent Cassels – La Haine, Derailed, Trance), that she is right for the dual role. Regardless of the personal cost.

The acting in Black Swan, across the board, is exceptional. Natalie Portman is without a doubt the star of the show. Portman captures the mental anguish that Nina goes through with remarkable consistency and concentration. One is never sure what mental state Nina is in, or what is real and what is not real with her. Portman is solely responsible for this and rightly deserves the credit.

This is not to say that Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey or Vincent Cassels do themselves an injustice; far from it. But Portman’s performance as Nina is Oscar-winning material. It has also finally enabled her to remove the shackles from her piteous performance as Padmé in Star Wars I, II and III. Yes, Portman’s performances in Closer and Brothers showed us that she had the potential to be a great actor, but in Black Swan she reveals that she has more than just mere potential with stunning effect.

Lily, played by Mila Kunis, looking beautiful despite having done some intense ballet practice.

It is not just the acting that is superb throughout the movie. The director, Darren Aranofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler) has done the choreography and the music brilliantly too. As a result, just like in Pi and Requiem, the disturbing nature of Black Swan has the maximum effect upon the audience. (Think of the masturbation or the lesbian-sex scenes to mention but two.)

The travesty for Black Swan is that it is neither as intense nor as shocking as it should have been. It is certainly not in the same league as Requiem. Whilst Requiem is harrowingly realistic, Black Swan becomes a little farcical towards the end. This is a pity for cast and director alike. It is unlikely that Aranofsky, judging by his previous works, intended to turn this movie into a pantomime.

These are by no means the only flaws in Black Swan either. Although the film hints at how dedicated one must be to become a top ballerina, it fails to detail the positive aspects of the industry. Instead, the movie focuses upon many of the negative stereotypes, such as eating disorders and overbearing parents. (Apparently, much of these are out of date in the West.)

Black Swan is by no means an objective portrayal of the Ballet world. The film also lacks the jaw-dropping, stomach-churning ability of Requiem. Then again, Black Swan is still a very entertaining psychological thriller and is quite distressing. Moreover, the acting is of the highest quality. Few actors will better Natalie Portman’s performance over the coming year, and she rightly deserves the nominations and awards she is receiving. It is just a shame for her and Aranofsky that audiences have laughed more at the absurdity of Nina’s descent, than taken note of the possible consequences of obsession.

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