My first instinct -- self-defeating if ever there was such a thing -- is to tell you not to read this, or any other, review of Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In before seeing it. Thoroughly demented and expectedly melodramatic without ever becoming graphic or particularly unpleasant, it’s a film defined by its well-kept secrets, and while I don’t intend to give any of those away here, I would begrudge no one for saving this until after they’ve seen the film.
Still here? Back again? Good.
For the first time since 1990’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, Almodovar has cast Antonio Banderas as Dr. Robert Ledgard, a renowned plastic surgeon determined to make advances in the realm of synthetic skin after his wife was left horribly burned by a car accident. For the most part, his colleagues are impressed by the advancements he has made, but those once closest to him know that he wouldn’t be above the ethically suspect practice of human testing -- and they would be right. Robert is keeping captive a woman he calls Vera (Elena Anaya), and the few who have seen her can’t shake the resemblance between her and the late Mrs. Ledgard…
That’s only the start of things, as the narrative soon retreats in time to reveal what exactly happened to Robert’s wife, his daughter (Blanca Suárez), the man who knew one (Roberto Álamo), and the boy who knew another (Jan Cornet). In adapting Thierry Jonquet’s novel, Mygale, Almodovar seems equally inspired by the likes of Frankenstein, the tale of Pygmalion, and Hitchcock’s Vertigo, keeping a clinical distance throughout as he introduces genre tropes and then mutates them with skillful paradigm shifts. His direction carries with it an air of precision that mutes the often preposterous nature of the proceedings in a manner evocative of de Palma’s playful streak (if less egregious), and Alberto Iglesias’s pulsating score adjusts itself accordingly as tones and roles are redefined.
The appearance early on of a man in a tiger costume for Carnival, a predator looking to wreak havoc at the Ledgard estate, sparks the titular suggestion of reconsidering identities and appearances -- that of skin, of clothes, of ethics, of desires, of genders, of loved ones and lovers. Robert’s expansive home is filled with gorgeous paintings, and when he observes Vera in captivity on a wall-sized TV, it suggests a new kind of canvas on which art can be made, both surgical and cinematic. While Banderas masks his vengeful ways with a steely-eyed demeanor, Anaya’s picturesque beauty is flattered by the camera while the screenplay proceeds to shift her part between prisoner and pet, patient and partner. It’s a generally quiet, fully composed performance that only grows more noteworthy in hindsight.
Almodovar manages to end Skin on a note of unlikely sentimentality, though those have defined much of his work to date. The fact that he gets there from such a seemingly far-flung Point A is a feat in and of itself; the fact that some genuine emotional yearning arises from such a bizarre storytelling context is even more impressive.