Sunday, May 13, 2012
Much more beautiful en Espanol
The first time I heard the title for Pedro Almodovar's The Skin I Live In (which I watched last night), I thought, "That sounds like sort of a tortured, awkward title, doesn't it?"
I mean, it's only five words. How tortured and awkward could it really be? But nonetheless I took that impression from it.
Of course, Almodovar wasn't naming his film with its English translation in mind. (Though with how important it is to do well in English-speaking countries, maybe he should have given that more consideration.) In Spanish the film is of course called La Piel Que Habito, which just seems infinitely more elegant. (I say "of course" because you can see the title in the more pleasing Spanish language poster I've included here, which is not a close-up of this woman's face, covered by a mask of bandages.)
I know that part of my perception of the title's elegance is a result of me finding the Spanish to be exotic, and therefore, more beautiful. Even if it means the same thing as "The Skin I Live In," those words just sound more beautiful than their English counterparts, which are not particularly beautiful words. And although the grammatical structure in English is not particularly complicated, it's just awkward enough to seem like what it is: a translation.
However, this is not the first time a title to one of Almodovar's movies has seemed a bit awkward in English. Let's take Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. The movie came out in 1988, meaning I was either 14 or 15 when I encountered it for the first time. I specifically remember thinking "What is this movie whose title is practically a sentence?" The Spanish title in this case is no shorter: Mujeres al Borde de un Ataque de Nervios. In fact, that might actually be more awkward.
You do, however, get an interesting difference in length when it comes to his next film, which we call Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! En Espanol that movie is called, simply, Atame! Meaning that the title was simply untranslatable to us in a way that would mean something to us, because we don't understand a concept like this in a single word, as the Spanish do. (Atame literally means "tie me up." I love that this concept could be expressed in a single word, especially since it involves a person asking for a thing that most people never request.)
I notice Almodovar also made a film with a title that probably never stood a chance not to sound weird: 1995's La Flor de mi Secreto, known to us (to the extent that we know it at all) as The Flower of My Secret. Try wrapping your head around what that's supposed to mean. For the record, the film is about a romance writer who has to confront a personal and professional crisis.
Then you've got his 2006 film Volver, which is the other thing that sometimes happens with foreign titles: They don't get translated at all. Volver means "return," but we don't call this movie Return in English -- we call it Volver. See here for a longer discussion of why some foreign titles get translated for consumption in the English-speaking world, and some don't -- though don't expect any satisfying conclusions.
Anyway, it was my first Almodovar since 2004's Bad Education (La Mala Educacion), so I was glad to get back to him after inexplicably blowing off his two straight collaborations with Penelope Cruz (Volver and Broken Embraces, or Los Abrazos Rotos). Not only is La Piel Que Habito shot beautifully -- I was especially noticing the precise framing and mis en scene -- but it contains some of the darkest and most thought-provoking themes in his work, which has always been fairly dark and provoked a considerable amount of thought. (Not to mention that it also contains genuine surprises in the narrative.) And while at first blush I thought it seemed like a departure for Almodovar, having watched it, I now feel very definitely that it fits comfortably into his canon.
You might say it's the same interesting skin, or piel, that Almodovar has always been living in.