Pedro Almodóvar again reveals his genius for turning the ridiculous into the sublime with this creepy skin flick – a melodramatic thriller that is sombre but never sober and that moves through time and space with much of the boldness and style we’ve come to expect from Spain’s leading director, even if it doesn’t have the overall sense of unity and authorial command of the likes of ‘Volver’ or ‘Talk to Her’. Almodóvar’s ambition sometimes overtakes his writing, and at points his storytelling tends towards being more knotty than ever. It’s also a film that’s more interesting in its unveiling than conclusion, and the last 20 minutes feel a little underwhelming and pedestrian compared to what’s come before. Mostly, though, this is a wonderfully strange, oddly sexy and attractively perverse mystery.
‘The Skin I Live in’ also reunites Almodóvar with Antonio Banderas, who puts in a charismatic turn as a tragic figure touched by evil. The last time Banderas worked with Almodóvar was for ‘Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!’ in 1990. Twenty-one years later, they’re back together for an adaptation of Thierry Jonquet’s French novel ‘Mygale’ (‘Tarantula’ in English translation), the story of a plastic surgeon, Dr Robert Ledgard (Banderas), whose skills with the knife allow him to take control of a messy personal life in ways unimaginable to anyone but him. Banderas puts in a commanding performance in a film whose thriller tendencies are made doubly interesting by also being an artful study of masks and identities, sex and flesh, bodies and power.
The less said about the story, the better, as it’s built on slow revelations and quick surprises. ‘The Skin I Live in’ is rooted in pain and loss, which pulls the film’s melodramatic side into a more thoughtful, provocative place than its surface suggests. It opens in Toledo in 2012, and Robert is a successful surgeon who lectures on the possibilities of genetic skin transformation and transplants.
At his stylish villa, he lives with a loyal housekeeper, Marilia (Marisa Paredes), and locked in a room at the top, being observed from elsewhere on screens, is a beautiful young woman, Vera (Elena Anaya), who we first meet dressed up to her neck in a tight, flesh-coloured body suit. Vera’s strange presence is both compelling and alienating, and she’s a mystery that the film takes its full length to solve. We learn that Robert’s wife was disfigured in a car crash several years earlier and killed herself, and that he lost a daughter, Norma (Blanca Suárez), too. A flashback to six years earlier reveals what happened to Norma and begins to explain why Vera is now a prisoner in Robert’s home…
After ‘Broken Embraces’, ‘The Skin I Live in’ extends Almodóvar’s journey into dark, oppressive storytelling and more upscale and interior worlds. He chills his palette, rejecting the bright colours of old for something more maudlin and steely. There are flashes of humour, usually of the nervous kind. Mostly, though, this plays as a psychosexual thriller whose wild events are anchored soberly in Almodóvar’s meticulous direction and a performance from Banderas that swerves the more maniacal aspects of his character to offer an intensely controlled, deadly and charming screen presence.
(A Pele Que Habito in Portuguese)