A weather scientist, looking to escape his former life with twelve months of dutiful isolation to the Crown on the eve of World War I, is assigned to a small island in the South Atlantic, just inside the Antarctic circle. His name is never spoken, but the IMDb calls him 'Friend,' and so shall I. Friend arrives by way of some cautious fisherman who treat him like he is already beyond the living, going to this part of the world willingly and for some length of time.
The islands lighthouse keeper, Gruner (a crusty and unrecognizable Ray Stevenson), is half-mad, fully naked, and not very accommodating. With his ride gone, and far from any international shipping lanes, these two incompatible men are be stuck together in this desolate place for a year. That would be difficutl enough, but the island inhabited by a very large, very territorial, tribe of of nocturnal, humanoid, sea-creatures.
The sombre, vaguely Lovecraftian, voice-over that opens Cold Skin intones in carefully modulated English, “We are never very far from those we hate. For this very reason, we shall never be truly close to those we love.” This might be the intent of the film, it's mission statement as it were, but it also signals the film's undoing from the get go, because the film is absent anything resembling love.
Where Cold Skin promises to play in the most sophisticated strata of the creature feature, namely the space occupied by the likes of Guillermo Del Toro's body of work, David Cronenberg's remake of The Fly, or George Romero's Day of the Dead, it insteads puts too many of its cards in the lighthouse action set-pieces, which become somewhat repetitive, incomprehensible and tedious, and too few with its central creature. Or love.
I am now going to run the critical no-no by perhaps treading towards the movie I wanted, over the movie I got. Sorry not sorry.
The half-fish-half-woman Aneris (effectively embodied by Spanish actress Aura Garrido in head-to-toe make-up and an appropriately waifish and threadbare wool sweater), is at first a curiosity, then a punching bag, and then, perhaps, a vessel of salvation (but not really). At all times, she is utterly devoid of both agency and motive. As gorgeous as she is designed and executed, she takes such a back seat to the two crazy men on the outside of the story, that the movie might not even require she be there at all to tell its tale, let alone be its beating heart. I am a wee bit curious to read Albert Sánchez Piñol's source novel, La Pell Freda, to see if it is indeed the case with Aneris before her transition from page to screen. Perhaps there was more internal information that fails to come across in a series of grunts and snarls and chewing on the candles.
Xavier Gens has built a career on siege films, from the neo-Nazi Inn outside of Paris that traps a gang of thieves in Frontier(s), to the post-apocalyptic single-set basement claustrophobia and paranoia in The Divide. Here things are wide and open Arctic spaces in the early 20th century, a small island with a cottage and a light-house. The small number of locations maximize the ability to make the most of them, including very rocky and tactile location shooting on the coast of Iceland and Spain’s Canary Islands. Mussels and other sea creatures float in tide pools and steam rises from thermal fissures, shells and skeletons of marine life pile up on the shore. The film is a joy to look at when it is not, you know, telling its story.
Dante's Inferno and James George Frazer's The Golden Bough both make cameos in Friend's collection of books, which he burns early on for survival, not the sort or reading you want around for a protracted stay on a frozen island full of angry fish-men. Their conscious presence does nothing to elucidate the core idea behind the story, beyond the obvious of 'this is hell, amirite?’ and 'supernatural science and myth and sex, folks.’ The question of why Aneris is 'attracted' to be with either of these men remains much less a mystery than an act of getting your audience to rebel against suspension of disbelief. The film eventual, subtle, pacificist message gets lost in this audience struggle.
The dynamic of Gruner treating her like a dog, and Friend trying to study her like a science or anthropology experiment, in between night-time attacks by the males of her species, wears out its welcome. By the time we get to an ending that is abrupt, unconvincing, and just as we never find out where Friend is running from, we never see where he is running to either - we are left with a merely a flat, unconvincing circle.
Frankly, I am amazed that the men did not end up fucking each other, which would have been more in line with the tone and masculine nature of the film -- and would have gotten a bit more reaction out of the audience. It felt to me that we as a collective, mutely endured Cold Skin. We are not angry, we are disappointed.
Suffice it to say, I would have loved to watch Friend and company simply observe and log the weather on the island, rather than constantly try to blow the place up. But that is another movie altogether. Your mileage may vary.