Two trips to the Curzon to catch up on: The Skin I Live In and Sarah’s Key, or La piel que habito and Elle s’appelait Sarah, as they’re known in their native tongues. We’ll start with Sarah’s Key, as I saw that last weekend: a French adaptation of a bestselling French novel, by French journalist and author Tatiana de Rosnay (although she, like the story, has moved around a lot: born in Paris, schooled in Boston and Norwich, then back to Paris – and she writes books in French and English). It stars that other supremely natural straddler of French and English, Kristin Scott Thomas, whose presence in a film of either nationality is entirely indicative of quality. Born in Cornwall, she moved to France aged 19, where she still lives, and is the perfect choice to play Julia, an American journalist living in France who becomes obsessed with tracking down the Jewish girl, Sarah, who once lived in the old Parisian apartment her husband has bought – in fact, she lived in it until a fateful day in 1942 when her family were rounded up by the French police, along with 13,000 other Jews, and shipped off to a rural transit camp and then Auschwitz. Because Julia believes that her in-laws were now complicit in the atrocity, she need to achieve closure by finding Sarah, whom she is convinced survived.
So, yes, it’s another holocaust drama, half of which takes place in the past but harrowingly recreates not just the transportation and the transit camp itself, but the horror, confusion and degradation of the so-called “Vél’ d’Hiv roundup”, whereby thousands of Jews were herded into the Vélodrome d’Hiver, an indoor cycling track which became holding pen without adequate sanitation, ventilation or any other kind of facility, and little food, and where many took their own lives.
Mélusine Mayance plays the 10-year-old Sarah, a child of incredible courage and will, who persuades her little brother to lock himself inside a secret cupboard back at the house and leaves him there; she is thus wracked with guilt as the days and weeks pass by, and is determined to escape the French transit camp at Beaune-la-Rolande in order to fetch him. Mayance is like a young Saoirse Ronan and plays the part well.
Sarah’s fictional story would have made a film on its own – especially as the Vél’ d’Hiv roundup is as far as I know little known outside France – but by intercutting with the modern day and Julia’s quest – which itself has repercussions on her own home life as it engulfs her and causes friction with her husband’s famuly – Sarah’s Key moves beyond being just another Holocaust drama. (That phrase was not meant to sound as glib as it did – I think you know what I mean.)
As Julia moves around, the dialogue shifts from French to English to French, and I must admit I preferred the sections that were in French, as it always feels weird when characters speak in English in a French film – also, I didn’t much like the American or English characters, such as Julia’s co-workers at the magazine she writes for. That said, it’s a satisfying whole, quite clearly structured after the novel I’m guessing, and Aidan Quinn, an American actor you don’t see enough of, brings gravitas and ease to a key protagonist in the final act.
Talking of which, there is a reveal in a climactic scene that may have worked on the page, but feels clunky and unrealistic in vision, unforgivably breaking the spell of the drama. But on the whole the film is well played – especially by veteran Niels Arestrup who was so good in Un Prophète and dominates the screen when he turns up in the final act – and the Holocaust sections strike a workable balance between horror and melodrama, and are well judged by director and co-writer Gilles Paquet-Brenner. (The tone is somewhere between Sophie’s Choice, The Pianist and The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas.)
The Skin I Live In is Pedro Almodóvar’s 18th film, and proves once again, as if it needed proving, that there is no filmmaker like him. I’ve been a fan since Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! in 1990 (after which, I went back to Women on The Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and have been pretty much alongside ever since), although the more I see of his work, the more I think I understand him. He’s all about his mother, of course, and about strong, dominant, independent women in general. Male characters in his world are often weak, or susceptible, or just plain bad. The women are where it’s at. In The Skin I Live In, the main protagonist is a man, a frankly bonkers plastic surgeon played by Antonio Banderas, who we’ve not seen in an Almodóvar since Tie Me Up!, so that’s headline news. In that, he was a lunatic who’d not escaped but been released from the asylum. Here, his character is regarded as sane by those around him, while his daughter (Blanca Suárez) is in psychiatric care, and is released at a key moment in the story. Pedro loves to have people going in and out of institutions, and to ask questions about the definitions of sane and sick.
Without giving anything away that isn’t hinted at in the trailer or revealed early on, Banderas is keeping a young woman captive at his private Toledo clinic, Vera (Elena Anaya, previously cast in a small role in Talk To Her). We discover why, and how this situation arose very gradually, much of the backstory told in lengthy, overlapping flashbacks. So it and Sarah’s Key have that in common, albeit not much else, especially in terms of style
This is melodrama, pure and simple. It very deliberately recalls classic Hollywood thrillers of the 50s and 60s, especially those of Alfred Hitchcock, and its mad scientist angle is straight out of 1930s horror and beyond. It’s brightly coloured, as ever, with the pale, sanitised nature of the surgeon’s house a perfect blank canvas for all manner of symbolic splashes of colour – and highly charged works of art full of nude flesh and a mixture of rhapsody and assault. Almodóvar has called it a horror movie “without shocks or screams” which is a fair enough approximation. It’s certainly disturbing, and probes beneath the skin of many taboo issues, including rape, and sado-masochism, and human experimentation. But it’s only a 15 certificate, and it’s not too explicit. Almodóvar manages to mine these seams without resorting to exploitation. (You may, or may not, remember my reaction to Von Trier’s Antichrist, which I applauded for its mood, themes and intelligence, but questioned the need for its explicit violence. There are no such worries here; even the surgical scenes are moderately done. Almodóvar is confident enough to tell his horrific tale – or that of the source novella, on which it’s only loosely based – without rubbing our noses in it. It’s creepy and uneasy enough without.)
Anaya is as beautiful and supple and ethereally pure as her character demands her to be. You can’t fake yoga skills, and she’s got ’em. But even though, in many ways, Vera is being exploited and manipulated, we are invited to root for her, and to feel her strength. She is not a victim in the classic sense. The Skin I Live In is a mystery as much as it is a horror movie. A mystery that is satisfactorily and patiently explained, with a twist that is not played for Shyamalan gasps, and in fact unfolds at a similar pace to what’s gone before, with further mini-twists off the back of it. This is skilful writing, but then again, our man Pedro is one of the living greats of modern cinema.
Oh, and it’s all in Spanish. Hooray!