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Almodovar's new film nods to a chilling classic

Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In—based on Thierry Jonquet’s novel, Tarantula–is officially described as being about a brilliant plastic surgeon who’s “haunted by past tragedies” involving his daughter and “creates a kind of synthetic skin that withstands any kind of damage” to deal with that old horror.

Well, you certainly can’t say that’s been done!

But hold on to your foreheads. Look up Les Yeux Sans Visage (a/k/a Eyes Without a Face), a French-Italian film directed by Georges Franju in 1959. In that eerie cult classic, Pierre Brasseur plays a surgeon wracked with guilt because the face of his daughter (Edith Scob) was disfigured in an accident that happened with him at the wheel. So he sends his assistant Louise—a scarred victim herself–out to kidnap girls so he can transplant their faces onto his daughter!

Merde! Has the face of Les Yeux Sans Visage simply been grafted onto Almodovar’s new film? Not at all—there are huge differences, as Almodovar himself points out—but the Spanish director does admit that film was a point of reference, seeing as he’s viewed it as often as uptown socialites get lifted and he knows every frame of it by heart.

I’m not surprised. It’s a subtle and beautiful experiment in horror, with its carnival-like Maurice Jarre score, its maddening periods of quiet, its almost unbearable scene where Brasseur cuts the skin off a captive girl’s face with creepy precision. Most rivetingly of all, in her white mask to cover the disfiguration, the mute Scob looks so chic and beautiful, creating a haunting silhouette as she wanders through the mansion like a living ghost out of some deranged French design house.

The ambiguity is intentional, since Franju was exploring the thin line between hideousness and gorgeousness—a line the movie further probes by centering on a man with immense paternal dedication but a very sick way of showing it. This guy may love his daughter, but he has precious little respect for anyone else’s!

According to critic J. Hoberman, Eyes Without A Face is one of three movies that created the modern slasher-shocker, the other two being Psycho and Peeping Tom. (Those two also came out in 1960–a landmark year in horror history, for sure.)

Almodovar adds his own lush touches—like comic flourishes, taboo inter-species technology, and a shocker of a plot twist–but it’s probably better to look at his Skin after first glancing at Eyes, the way he did. You can’t avoid it anyway; they won’t stop staring down at us through that ominous mask.