Cold Skin


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Xavier Gens' Cold Skin
"The most ambitious, assured and accomplished work to date from Xavier Gens, Cold Skin is terrifying in places and heartbreaking in others."

There must be something in the water. Amphibious, half-human things are everywhere in 2018, and they rarely disappoint. Xavier Gens’ eagerly anticipated Gothic chiller takes us back 100 years in time and a thousand or more miles from civilisation to follow a nameless man (David Oakes) who has agreed to be marooned on the margins of the Antarctic Circle in order to observe the weather. Curiously, his predecessor is nowhere to be found, and the only other man on the island – the rugged, ragged, half-pickled lighthouse keeper Gruner (Ray Stevenson) – claims that he just wandered off one day, presumably into the sea. When something with webbed feet and cold skin breaks into his house on his first night there, forcing him to hide in the basement, our hero begins to suspect that the missing man met a grislier fate.

Based on Albert Sánchez Piñol’s novel and owing a good deal to HP Lovecraft’s tales of Innsmouth folk, Cold Skin is full of arresting imagery. The lighthouse is garrisoned with spikes whose purpose seems as much to intimidate as to defend. Down on the shoreline, circles of smooth stones filled with shells suggest unknown ritual or attempted communication. Then there’s Aneris (Aura Garrido), caught between two worlds, her cold grey-blue amphibian body wrapped in a chunky woollen jumper. She’s Gruner’s pet, his source of sexual relief, and an outlet for his temper. At first repulsed by her, the newcomer soon comes to feel pity and to delight in the intelligence that hides behind her learned humility. It’s the first step in the breaking down of his own psychological barriers, the first stage of his questioning what it means to be human – and, specifically, to be a man.

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Every night, the creatures stalk the island, often swarming the lighthouse. There are echoes of I Am Legend as Gruner mercilessly dispatches them with rifle or blade. The lighthouse is the only place of refuge, so the newcomer must reside there on Gruner’s terms, contributing his share of effort to the slaughter and straining to say nothing about what Gruner is doing to Aneris. It is dangerous enough that he is kind to her. Here are stories of colonialism and collapse told countless times in human history, tales of cultural as well as military conquest, and of those small bitter conquests that take place nightly behind closed doors in rooms that may as well be a thousand miles from civilisation. The erstwhile framing of the story suits the era in which it is set (even down to the narration we hear) but the subtext is very much a part of the modern age, and different questions bubble to the surface. Is our hero’s strange internal journey – or the amphibian cinema phenomenon itself – indicative of a deeper change in how those consuming the story perceive their boundaries and their relationship to nature, to the uncanny, to the imaginary? Is cold skin becoming more familiar to us all?

The most ambitious, assured and accomplished work to date from Xavier Gens, Cold Skin is terrifying in places and heartbreaking in others. In the tradition of the Gothic, it twists familiar tropes into something altogether more disconcerting, just as cinematographer Daniel Aranyó takes the pebble-strewn shores and grey skies of the island and fills them with uncertainty, finding in all that bleakness something that beguiles and something that chills. The waves that swirl up against the shore can be cool, clear turquoise or a deep, obscure blue-black, and either way they could be hiding something deadly just beneath the surface. Though at times we glimpse an awful tide of grey flesh like that once said to have pursued a man who stayed overnight in an Innsmouth hotel, there’s a sense that the real horror here is just out of sight – perhaps because we dare not look at it. And still, when morning comes, we can almost taste the salt air and the sweet fresh water from the fountain by the shore: the island is undeniably beautiful.

Cold Skin is a true genre masterpiece. Gens is only 42, but the question for him now is whether or not he will ever be able to equal it.

Reviewed on: 03 Mar 2018
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A young man who takes up the role of weather observer on a remote island finds himself trapped in a battle with sinister people from the sea.

Director: Xavier Gens

Writer: Jesús Olmo, Eron Sheean

Starring: Ray Stevenson, David Oakes, Aura Garrido

Year: 2017

Runtime: 108 minutes

Country: Spain, France

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