December 2011 – January 2012

Arts & Letters

An auteur planet

By Peter Conrad
Pedro Almodóvar’s 'The Skin I Live In' and Lars von Trier’s 'Melancholia'

Ah, to be an auteur, with the power to impose your own kinked or crazy worldview on reality! Pleasing only yourself, you can cosmetically rejig the human species, or – if you happen to be a miserable depressive – ensure that your gloom spreads through the cosmos by decreeing a planetary collision that will exterminate all life on earth.

New films by Pedro Almodóvar and Lars von Trier explore these whimsical options. After twisting and turning through a wacky set of biological permutations, Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In (in national release on 26 December) concludes with an image of genesis, symbolised by a spiralling molecule of DNA, while von Trier’s Melancholia (in national release on 15 December) reverses creation with an apocalyptic conclusion that puts a sudden stop to the giddy revolutions of our exhausted, overcrowded little orb. In Spain the living go on endlessly banging each other; in Denmark life ends with a collective whimper of regret or relief as we contemplate an orgasmic Armageddon set to music by Richard Wagner.

In The Skin I Live In Antonio Banderas – jowly and scowling, his dashing heyday as Zorro and Che Guevara behind him – plays a plastic surgeon, Dr Robert Ledgard, who improbably rescues his unfaithful wife from a burning car and implausibly keeps her alive by grafting patches of skin transplanted from pigs onto her carbonised body; following her suicide, he then impossibly replaces her with a hand-tooled sexual partner, which he spends several years surgically customising.

The madly elaborate story revises the myth of Pygmalion, the sculptor who willed his woman of stone to step down from her pedestal and into his arms; the Pygmalion of Shaw’s play, however, was content to clean up the diction of his Galatea. The doctor in Almodóvar’s film does his sculpting with a scalpel and takes special care when chiselling sexual orifices. Shaw’s crusty bachelor Higgins had no thought of marrying Eliza, but Almodóvar’s character gives his creation a box of rubber dildos with which she is ordered to prepare herself for consummation. There’s a brief discussion of bioethics, though such moral qualms are soon forgotten. What attracts the director is not our power to tinker with the genetic make-up of our species, but the chance to switch genders and to maximise the modes of erotic play.

Loony subplots proliferate; in one an escapee from the Carnival celebrations in Madrid, still dressed as a tiger with a pronged, flaunting tail, prowls Ledgard’s clinic and makes feral love to a patient while his mother, who happens to be employed there, watches her befurred son’s buttocks pump up and down on CCTV. Another detour follows the misadventures of Ledgard’s pill-popping daughter, who gets caught up in a teen orgy.

Although much of the action occurs on the operating table – I crossed my legs defensively when the plot prescribed a session of emasculation and vaginoplasty – it’s mercifully ungory, which could be a symptom of Almodóvar’s refusal to dramatise the distress of characters with whom he so sadistically toys. Climax piles on climax until the denouement turns on the heroine’s need – after an uncomfortable coital experiment with Ledgard – to scurry downstairs to fetch a tube of lubricant from her handbag. (Surely the characters in an Almodóvar film, who ought to know what’s expected of them, should have better-stocked bedside tables?) A gun battle between two women ensues, as operatically demented as the shoot-out between Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge in Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar. In an epilogue, the final fade-out is also a cop-out: Almodóvar dodges the emotional challenge of a sentimental reunion that one of the film’s storylines brings about.

Except for Marisa Paredes, playing the surgeon’s accomplice, the grotesquely glorious divas who strutted through Almodóvar’s earlier films are nowhere to be seen. His performers are listless, as compliant as the doped patients on whom Ledgard operates. The hero of course is the director’s self-image: a Pygmalion who is not actually in love with Galatea; a Frankenstein who is mildly amused by the torments of the monster he creates. Is auteurism a fancy name for self-indulgence? Seeing the world anew while looking at it through an artist’s eyes is one thing; being trapped inside a neurotic’s fetid head is quite another.


In Melancholia a psychological malaise swells to planetary size. The project – a story about panicky or stoical human reactions to a star that emerges from behind the sun and advances on a crash course towards Earth – developed under the sign of Saturn: von Trier is famously melancholy, a man with a temperament that Renaissance theorists of the humours called saturnine. I didn’t expect his ailment to be contagious, and I initially blamed Wagner for enabling the film to wheedle its way into my dreams. It begins with the post-coitally fatigued prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde – music that induced nervous breakdowns in its earliest auditors and goaded unstable characters in film noir to murder or suicide: excerpts from the opera accompany a killing in Fritz Lang’s The Blue Gardenia, and coax the maudlin Joan Crawford to drown herself in Jean Negulesco’s Humoresque. Von Trier ignores the insatiable erotic yearning of Wagner’s score; instead it accompanies images of apocalypse – flaring nebulae, scythe-shaped lightning strikes and a storm of purifying hail.

The clinic in The Skin I Live In doubles as an art gallery. Louise Bourgeois’ sculptures underline the aesthetic motives of Ledgard’s perverse surgical procedures, and at one point he studies his model as she reclines on a bed like a nude in the Titian portrait that hangs on his wall. Von Trier’s characters also leaf through a library of art books, left open at plates that the film magically animates. Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow announces the return of an ice age, with the addition of dead birds that drop from the sky like missiles. The heroine studies the drowned Ophelia in a painting by Millais, then brings it to life as she imagines herself dying, ferried towards oblivion on a rippling stream.

For the best part of two hours, von Trier’s camera studies the face of Kirsten Dunst, who plays a young woman so clinically depressed that she regards the impending doom of our species as a blessed liberation. Dunst replaced Penélope Cruz, one of Almodóvar’s flouncy muses, who found herself otherwise engaged shortly before the film began shooting. The substitution was von Trier’s good fortune (although the lush, dark-haired Cruz has a closer resemblance to Charlotte Gainsbourg, already cast as the jolie-laide sister): Dunst – wan-faced and as blonde as the moon, acting only with her eyes as she wanders dejectedly through her wedding party and absent-mindedly copulates with one of the guests – is astonishing. If you remember her as the chirpy girl next door in Spider-Man or as the ditzy queen in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, be prepared to think again. Mostly limp and dazed, she acquires a sudden strength and courage in the last few minutes as, with tears squeezing through her closed eyes, she helps her companions to confront or perhaps to imagine extinction.

A little embarrassed by my tightened throat when it was all over, I wondered why I was so moved. Then I realised I’d experienced it all before, from a different vantage point. Melancholia is a Scandinavian On the Beach: the planet that smites the Earth like a dumbbell gives form and substance to the stealthier menace of radioactivity which, according to the paranoid 1950s, would filter down from the self-destructive Northern Hemisphere and finally annihilate Melbourne, with Tasmania enjoying a cheerless reprieve for a few extra days. Since childhood I’ve been waiting anxiously for the world to end. Now, thanks to von Trier, I understand there is nothing to be afraid of. “The Earth is evil,” shrugs Dunst. “We won’t be missed.”

Peter Conrad

Peter Conrad’s most recent book is How the World Was Won. His Myths of the Day, based on a BBC radio series, will be published in 2016.

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