I expect many will compare Cold Skin to The Shape of Water, Guillermo Del Toro’s adult fairy tale, set against the backdrop of the Cold War that depicted a loving, sexual relationship between a mute woman and an amphibian man. Xavier Gens’ hotly anticipated Gothic chiller which is set in 1914 at the start of World War I, also features a romance between a subaquatic creature and a human, and truth be told, the creatures even look alike. It’s enough to warrant a comparison but in all honesty, that’s where the similarities end. Cold Skin is is no way as emotionally absorbing as The Shape of Water, but Xavier Gens takes the material seriously enough, allowing us to care for the creature and hope she’ll survive till the end. And that may be enough to carry you through until the final credits roll.
Based on Albert Sánchez Piñol’s novel of the same name, Cold Skin tells of a nameless meteorologist (David Oakes) who has agreed to be marooned on an empty island along the Antarctic Circle for an entire year in order to observe the weather. To his surprise, he meets a rugged, deranged lighthouse keeper named Gruner (Ray Stevenson) and a female sea creature whom Gruner has made his slave. Only she’s not the only sea creature living below the island’s icy depths. Night after night, hordes of other creatures rise up from the sea in an attempt to overtake the island’s lighthouse, and now our nameless meteorologist has no choice but to join Gruner in battle if he hopes to stay alive.
Cold Skin is a small, slickly paced, well-acted creature feature that just so happens to be both thrilling in places and heart-rending in others. It is also Xavier Gens’ most assured and accomplished work to date and features two fine performances by Oakes and Stevenson who do their best to convey their roles despite some poor dialogue. Stevenson, in particular, should be applauded for his performance as the shaken misanthrope, giving it his very all, even in scenes where he dives deep into a romance with the creature (yes, the movie goes there). Even more impressive is Spanish actress Aura Garrido playing the eerily beautiful Aneris, whose innocence exposes the worst of mankind. As one would expect, it doesn’t take long before our nameless protagonist comes to see the “humanity” in the creature and begins to sympathize with her. “We are never very far from those we hate,” he reads from his diary, “for this very reason, we shall never be close to those we love.”
Cold Skin name-checks Charles Darwin midway through and even opens with a famous quote from Nietzsche, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” Unfortunately, the film tries too hard to hammer home these philosophies leaving me to believe the screenplay writers (all three) believe it to be deeper than it really is. That said, Cold Skin works well as a siege movie, with the men desperately trying to defend their base, while the “monsters” desperately try to tear it down. This shouldn’t come as a surprise for anyone familiar with the director’s work since he has pretty much built a career making siege films (see, Frontiers and The Divide); but Cold Skin also works extremely well when centering on the twisted love triangle between the two men and the fish-woman they both fall in “love” with. In short, there’s enough suspense, and visual imagination, to smooth the edges of the movie’s problems and recommend seeing.
– Ricky D
The Fantasia Film Festival runs July 12 – August 2. Visit the official website for more information.