By Bryan Yentz
“We are never very far from those we hate. For this very reason, we shall never be truly close to those we love.” What a beautifully pessimistic line of dialogue. Unfortunately, such a powerful little statement deserves a more impactful film than this.
Adapted from a Catalan novel written by Albert Sanchez Pinol, COLD SKIN is purposeful to a fault. At once, it comes off like director Xavier Gens’ most accessibly ambitious film, but also his most refrained. There’s so much going on; so much that Gens and screenwriters Jesus Olmo & Eron Sheean want to relay to the audience—the problem being that it’s all delivered in a way that only elicits a shrug.
As a fan of Gens’ previous work (my most favored of his cinematic oeuvre being THE DIVIDE), I was hoping for his signature style of gritty characterization, wince-inducing violence and emotional drainage. As one of the original voices in France’s extreme new wave of horror (which found much of its footing in 2007/2008 with features like INSIDE and MARTYRS), Gens hit the blood-spattered scene with the brutally frenetic FRONTIER(S), a redemptive film for his resume after the critical failure that was the Hitman adaptation (of which he was actually fired from during production).
In his previous flicks, Gens abilities as a director were complimented all the more by his filmmaking companions Jean-Pierre Taieb (music composer) and Laurent Bares (cinematographer). A true troika of visceral, visual and audible talent, the three delivered the powerful goods with both FRONTIER(S) and THE DIVIDE. Following both of these fantastically nightmarish trips into human ugliness, I was hopeful that this team made in horror heaven would assemble for all of their future collaborations. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a reunion for Gen’s previous film (THE CRUCIFIXION) and as fate would have it—did not come back for COLD SKIN either. But as I stated, I’m a fan of Gens first and foremost. So while I was disappointed that I wouldn’t hear a new, luscious score from Taieb; witness new elegantly squalid visuals from Bares—I still couldn’t wait to dive into the frigid depths of the controversial director’s newest vision.
Set in 1914, COLD SKIN follows “Friend” (yes, that’s actually his name), a young man who sails to an island in the South Atlantic to work as a weather official—following the death of the previous meteorologist. Upon this lonely islet is one other man, a crotchety lighthouse keeper named Gruner (Ray Stevenson) who has customized said lighthouse with spears and all manner of siege-protection. . . But from what? Well, as it turns out, every night ushers an armada of aquatic denizens (referred to as “Toads”) onto dry land where they attack the lighthouse (and anyone unlucky enough to be caught outside). To survive, Friend reluctantly partners with Gruner and immediately comes to discover he’s tamed one of the female creatures as a housewife of sorts.
To its detriment, COLD SKIN will undoubtedly be compared to the previously released THE SHAPE OF WATER. Both contain the humanizing of aquatic feral creatures, determined antagonists who will stop at nothing to control them, and protagonists that will go to desperate lengths to save them. That, and fish sex. Both have that (surprisingly, THE SHAPE OF WATER being the more explicit of the two). However, the narratives are worlds apart in both style and structure. While THE SHAPE OF WATER was a poetic and strategically plotted love-letter to the monster movies of yore, COLD SKIN is a confused concoction of ideas that fails to truly deliver on any one concept.
What begins as a potentially ferocious creature-feature quickly alters into that of a drama involving two isolated men and the dueling relationships each has with the female Toad, Aneris. While Friend is a benevolent compatriot, Gruner is authoritative and abusive. Their differing attitudes toward Aneris (and life in general) is further defined by the way each endure the nightly attacks. Gruner is desensitized and enjoys the routine whereas Friend is unaccustomed to such wanton bloodshed and acts out of survival. It’s during these sieges that COLD SKIN also wants to be an action film—sometimes successfully.
One of the key words I used above was “routine”. Now, I appreciate Gens trying to make a genre-bending film such as this, but much like the characters herein—wrapped up in the unchanging cycle of resentment and violence—COLD SKIN too often feels routine. It’s visually and thematically repetitive. The initial sieges are entertaining enough, but soon grow tiresome as nothing is truly done with them (outside of a late bombing). Aerial shots of storming Toads are used/reused, while Gruner and Friend dispatch the beasts in the same way over and over and over again (firearms). The action becomes a cyclical pattern of gunshots and screeches with nary a nifty camera trick or jaw-dropping kill that would otherwise break up the monotony. That, and as stated, these sieges occur at night so we’re only offered glimpses of the CG brutes (due to the sweeping—and sometimes haunting—beam of the lighthouse) before they’re dispatched with a gun barrel’s flash. As cool a spectacle as the death-dealing lighthouse is, it’s unfortunate that nothing more is done with either its barricades or traps. The lighthouse should have felt like an intimidating character unto itself, instead it feels like a missed opportunity for Gens to do something more radical with his direction.
Repetition also seeps into that of the dramatic elements as the back and forth between Friend and Gruner’s differing sensibilities (or lack thereof) repeatedly hits the same notes and conveys the same points time and again. As much as the story attempts to have the audience both detest and sympathize with Gruner over a passage of time, it doesn’t do a formidable job of making one feel either way. Worse, Aneris, who we’re supposed to pity, never rises above that which Gruner has made her: a pet. She doesn’t have much of a disposition and seemingly only reacts to things as an animal would—there’s just not much going on beneath her surface. It’s a pity to keep mentioning it, but with THE SHAPE OF WATER, Guillermo Del Toro knew how to get the most out of his characters in succinct portions of time, all the while conveying far more than just words. He crafted a villain that was both menacing yet compelling, a heroine with profundity and heart, a creature with personality. Character wasn’t sacrificed for theme.
Due to the repetition, COLD SKIN lacks a proper sense of escalation. I kept waiting for Gens to go all in with the madness of the narrative but each time it begin hinting at something more sinister, perverse or intense—it yielded. In a surprisingly move, Gens refrains from both graphic violence and detailed sexual content (though the horizontal bop has never been something he really focused on). Are either necessary for a movie to be good? Hell no. But when you have a story involving aberrant behavior, bloodthirsty sea-beings, violent men at their breaking point and interspecies breeding—I’d expect something memorable from the whole shebang; some standout moment that had me reeling. It doesn’t take enough chances with its subject matter and tells its zealous story quite linearly.
COLD SKIN offers moments of brief brilliance such as a deep-diving sequence, some thought-provoking dialogue and Daniel Aranyo’s frankly stellar exterior cinematography—but it doesn’t merge into a cohesively enjoyable whole. It splashes in the shallows instead of diving full-force into the deep. Xavier Gens attempted something outside his of his normal extremities, and while not entirely successful—at the very least—deserves a look.