Despite third-act question marks, Almodovar's lean, surgical 'The Skin I Live In' is as twisted and brilliant as its insane protagonist
The Skin I Live In Sony Pictures Classics
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Screenplay: Pedro Almodóvar, based on the novel Tarantula, by Thierry Jonquet
Starring: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes, Jan Cornet, Blanca Suárez and
Rated R / 1 hour, 57 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)
Few directors' films are as instantly recognizable as those of Pedro Almodóvar. And few
directors are as distinctly cinematic - those sinister, Hitchcockian undertones suggesting
something lurking underneath, the brashly melodramatic stories ironically refashioned by bold
splashes of bright reds and yellows. Before a character has spoken a word, you'll know you're
watching an Almodóvar film.
Granted, that kind of stylistic recognizability can be a handicap as well (you wouldn't want the
brand to overshadow the film itself) - but that's one of the reasons why his newest film, The Skin
I Live In, is so interesting. It is both a vintage piece and a thrilling new direction for the Oscar-winning Spanish filmmaker, as he shifts into the area of macabre science-fiction.
One might also call this a horror film, except it approaches its material with fascination, not
revulsion; it doesn't recoil in terror, but lingers with intense concentration. Almodóvar's
precision is as clinical as that of his main character, Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), a
brilliant surgeon who may or may not be insane. And if he is, well, that may just be the price of
Ledgard's conducts experiments on the side that don't exactly pass ethical muster, but he is
undeterred. He tells an audience of fellow scientists that he has successfully created a new type
of skin - a skin that feels as natural and soft as natural human skin, but which is more durable,
and will not burn.
He insists he's only tested this experiment on mice, and that it was merely for research purposes
and he'll now wash his hands of it. But we know better. We know because the film opens in his
home (which doubles as a lab), where we see a beautiful young woman (Elena Anaya) seemingly
imprisoned there. She's been there for quite some time, and Almodóvar hints at a history of
mental instability we'll find out more about later. Early on, she asks Ledgard's housekeeper,
Marilia (Marisa Paredes), for a needle and thread. For knitting, she says. But Marilia is no fool.
What exactly Ledgard is up to, and in exactly what way
Marilia is complicit, we don't yet know. What we do find out pretty early on is that the young
woman, Vera, seems to bear a striking resemblance to the good doctor's wife - a wife who, years
earlier, suffered a tragic fate after a car accident left her with burns all over her body. And so the
seeds of obsession were sown.
At this point, things appear to have cleared up - Ledgard's experiment, his state of mind, and the
reason why that enigmatic young woman in the form-fitting body suit is locked in his house. We
think we've got a good handle on where everything fits.
We do not. At all. Only when three other characters and two other key incidents from the past
come into focus do we begin to understand the immensity of the situation. At that point, we can
shriek, or we can laugh. Depends on your state of mind, I guess.
What we ultimately discover is the most deranged version of Vertigo you could imagine -
alongside a revenge storyline that's about as twisted as anything you're likely to see. (Not
including Korean cinema, of course.) It's hard to watch the film without thinking of Georges
Franju's great Eyes Without a Face, but this movie goes oh-so much farther. Almodóvar's
treatment of the material is so deliberate, his commentary so enigmatic; he's able to
contextualize what happens in such a way that, while we may be horrified by what we discover,
we're not horrified in quite the way we might expect to be. Somehow, he gets to a deeper,
stranger level. When everything is revealed and we consider the actions and motivations of the
characters, we might think, "Well, when you think about it, that's almost a little sweet . . . if only
it weren't so absolutely demented and morally repulsive."
A key to the film's effectiveness, and to holding down the sense of detached unease Almodóvar
does such a fine job creating, is Banderas' performance. He is a statue of absolute calm, a man
fiercely obsessed, but just as fierce in his determination not to be emotionally overwhelmed by
My enthusiasm for The Skin I Live In wavered only in the last 15 minutes - in fact, my
disappointment is largely because of the previous 100 minutes. Almodóvar runs into the
common problem of not knowing how to resolve his story. The way he chooses to go about it
makes perfect sense; it just seems odd that that's the best he could come up with.
The penultimate scene is particularly anticlimactic; it's a scene we could get - in fact, would
expect - in any other run-of-the-mill thriller, from its basic conceit to the staging of the scene
itself. The rest of the film is worthy of much better than its final sequences. Yet even the
underwhelming ending can't diminish all that's great about The Skin I Live In, in all its delicious,
absurd, revolting glory.