Xavier Gens first caught my eye back in 2012 with his ABCs of Death segment “X is for XXL” – a surprisingly poignant commentary on skewed societal norms and the way in which the pressure to fit into a marginalized version of beauty can lead to drastic results. Not only did Gens manage to spark a stimulating discussion about what the world deems “beautiful”, and how ridiculous and narrow-minded that viewpoint can be, but he also maintained an eerie atmosphere throughout the short, creating a tense environment while simultaneously displaying his vivid imagination, thereby arguably crafting the best segment in the bunch with arguably the toughest letter of the alphabet. It’s an odd thing to say that I’ve been waiting on his newest feature for years after only seeing one of his shorts, but I was quite honestly blown away by his talent given his extremely restrained working conditions. That being said, it disappoints me greatly to relay that Cold Skin is quite a letdown, especially when one has been looking forward to new work from director Gens for so many moons.
Based on the book with the same title, Cold Skin tells the story of an isolated man on a lonely island near the Antarctic circle with nothing to do for the next twelve months than serve as the weather official for the year 1914. Stuck spending his days studying wind patterns, the young man is entirely alone on this island aside from the crazed man in the lighthouse who was once highly regarded as the Maritime Single Official Gruner. Gruner may have achieved this much sought after position in the military at one point in time, but now he’s just a babbling shadow of his former self, a nut who struts around in a nude drunken haze, which is why the young man doesn’t reach out to him until the creatures come – and come they do, rushing in by the dozens, ushering in a nightly attack from which there is no escape.
Now, this old-timey meteorologist and bold-officer-turned-boozehound have no choice but to host a nightly siege from the safety of the lighthouse’s watchtower, fighting off sea creatures from the depths of the water below, battling all night long into the wee hours of the morning, and piling up the bodies of their enemies as high as the waves that crash upon the shore. It’s a confusing time, not just because the young man brought to this island to study wind patterns has never witnessed curious creatures quite like these before, but also because Gruner is giving quarter to one of the very monsters that the two men spend their nights fighting – and even going so far as to lay with the female, when he’s not busy beating her like a dog. The line between right and wrong becomes more and more muddled as the nights roll on and the war wages heatedly between the two sides, leaving the viewer with one ultimate overshadowing question that is never fully answered: who is really the man in this scenario, and who is the monster?
This is a tough premise to pull off as it is, but the strange circumstances become all the more questionable when taking into account that this film is coming to light on the heels of Guillermo del Toro’s wholly captivating and undeniably heartfelt The Shape of Water. In a weird way, Gens’ Cold Skin comes across as if he were telling the same story as del Toro, but instead of the movie being about love, it was just about colonialism instead. It’s not hard to see how this would be a much more difficult idea to sell.
It’s unfortunate to say, but sadly, despite the fact that cinematographer Daniel Aranyo beautifully captures the stunning landscape of the Canary Islands in Spain, and renowned special effects maestro Pau Costa (of The Revenant, A Monster Calls) creates some truly captivating creatures, the film itself just reads as dull, overly pretentious, and even downright goofy at times. Every time the tension is built during a hectic fight scene, all of the muster leaves the room with the sudden interruption of daylight, the runtime is far too long, and the one dimensional characters just aren’t interesting enough to keep beating you over the head with the same message that was made easily understandable during the very first opening act. In the end, Cold Skin looks gorgeous, but its murky waters only come up shallow.