The Skin I Live In
Directed by: Pedro Almodovar
Starring: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya
3 out of 5 stars
Spain’s Pedro Almodóvar could not make a boring picture if he tried. Equally lauded and chastised – sometimes for the same film – his distinctive oeuvre illustrates a man seduced by suggestive sexuality and evocative colours. The movie camera, to him, hides nothing.
Truthfully speaking, The Skin I Live In left me speechless. Call it uncomfortable, ashamed, whatever – I sat at the screen startled, and yet, strangely delighted. In many ways, Skin represents Almodóvar at his most demented and transgressive, breaking loose from two pictures of prestige and world recognition, Talk to Her and Volver.
Cinema history is littered with the remains of mad scientists driven by desire, or damned with the consequences of their perverted souls. Breaching the bounds of pathological decency, The Skin I Live In adapts Thierry Jonquet’s lurid novel Tarantula, a tale of revenge, gender identity and unbridled power.
Channeling his best Cary Grant, Antonio Banderas stars as Robert Ledgard, a suave plastic surgeon whose heavy brow seems apt for obsession. Situated in an immaculate clinic in suburban Toledo, the doctor broods over personal tragedy as he deliberately constructs beauty onto a kidnapped body.
The darkly alluring Elena Anaya plays Vera Cruz, Robert’s young prisoner and plaything, a mysterious woman whose skin is experimentally replaced patch by patch. Alone, and encased in a fetishistic body sheath, Vera practices yoga to the knowing surveillance of the doctor and his elderly housemaid, Marilia.
From the beginning, Almodóvar lets us know something odd is afoot. He manufactures a film so vividly rich and baroque in imagery that its style alone leaves one curiously transfixed.
One of the other chief pleasures of The Skin I Live In is its concoction of operatic emotions and a serpentine screenplay. It is a story that slowly teases with its mysteries, flashbacks and violence that climax in horrific fashion and spinning sexual intrigue.
Although the film’s touchstones are more aligned with two specific influences – Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face and James Whale’s Frankenstein, Almodóvar also ventures further afield to David Cronenberg territory, constructing a kinky, body-horror thriller.
Banderas, working with Almódovar for the first time since 1990’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, gives a deceptively charismatic performance, imbuing Ledgard with a debonair facade and undertone of menace. Even while Ledgard’s medical colleagues disapprove of his experiments with synthetic skin and forced operations, his secretive work continues as the film compels us to review the context of his God complex.
Elena Ayana’s role is even trickier, since we know little about Vera other than her dislike for feminine garments. The film does not play her as a victim, though. Instead, she comes to participate in Ledgard’s strange experiments and intimate desires, gradually disclosing her history and state of mind.
Few directors have the skill at swerving from confident camp to overwhelming chills like this. Though the film ranks as slightly frivolous in Almodóvar’s cannon, it contains enough carnal nourishment and melodrama to keep one glued until its outrageous third act.
By then, The Skin I Live In has fully embraced its wayward weirdness, declaring itself tragic, devilish and, yes, even a tad silly.