After you've seen The Skin I Live In, check out our Spoiler Special discussion.
The Skin I Live In (Sony Pictures Classics), Pedro Almodóvar’s 18th film, marks the Spanish director’s first attempt to blend elements of the horror genre with the high-camp, gender-bending melodrama that’s become his stock in trade. Visually lush and thematically ambitious, the movie abounds in familiar Almodovarian pleasures: Alberto Iglesias’ magnificent score pulses with obscure menace, Jean-Paul Gaultier’s costumes (designed in collaboration with Paco Delgado) are deliciously perverse, and Antxon Gomez’s production design is pure postmodern eye candy—if Almodóvar hadn’t become a filmmaker, he could’ve been a hell of an interior decorator. But the story of a plastic-surgeon-turned-mad-scientist unfolds with a clinical chill we’re unaccustomed to feeling in this director’s films. The Skin I Live In is a math problem, not a poem.
Still, what an elegant proof it is. The film’s story (based on a French novel by Thierry Jonquet) emerges slowly from a pieced-together series of flashbacks and scenes from the present day, fragments that finally begin to converge around the halfway mark. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) is a plastic surgeon outside the town of Toledo. Rich, arrogant, and secretive, he operates on patients in a private facility at his lavish mansion. Early in the film, the doctor presents his groundbreaking work at a medical conference: He’s developed an artificial skin that’s resistant to both burns and insect bites, which he’s now testing on laboratory mice.
Except … back at Robert’s gated compound, El Cigarral, there seem to be no mice in evidence. Instead, there’s a twisted domestic setup that is at first impenetrably baffling. A beautiful young woman, Vera (Elena Anaya) appears to be living as a prisoner in a locked room, supplied with everything she needs through a dumbwaiter sent up from the kitchen. Vera wears nothing but a full-length flesh-colored bodystocking at all times, and though she appears resigned to her captivity—even practicing yoga with calm concentration—the walls of the room are covered in writing that tallies up the days since her imprisonment.
How did this woman wind up living in such strange circumstances, and why is the doctor spying on her via a giant closed-circuit screen in his bedroom? Why does the housekeeper, Marilia (longtime Almodóvar stalwart Marisa Paredes), collaborate with her boss in keeping Vera hidden away from the world? None of this will make sense until we learn about the fates of Marilia’s son (Roberto Alamo), an armed robber who appears at the mansion gates one day costumed as a tiger, and Robert’s daughter (Blanca Suárez), a mentally-ill teenager who’s sexually attacked at a party by a drug-abusing local youth (Jan Cornet).
Nothing that happens after the midpoint can be revealed in a review (though June Thomas and I discuss the movie’s twists at length in the Spoiler Special podcast linked above). I’ll have to limit myself to describing the movie’s mood, which is somber and densely allusive. (Vertigo is a clear antecedent, as are James Whale’s Frankenstein and Georges Franju’s Eyes Without A Face.) The Skin I Live In is a meditation on profound themes: memory, grief, violence, degradation, and survival—so why does it leave the viewer (at least this one) so curiously unmoved? Watching the parts of this multigenerational melodrama slowly fuse into a coherent (if wackily improbable) whole offers aesthetic and intellectual gratification, but little in the way of emotional punch.
This may have to do with the mid-movie shift of protagonist. When we abruptly stop focusing on Robert’s story arc and turn instead to Vera’s, it’s hard to know what to do with the reserve of sympathy we’ve painstakingly built up for Banderas’ twisted, sadistic, but still recognizably human character. Shifting the audience’s identification in this way is a deliberate choice on Almodóvar’s part—he wants to mess with our usual filmgoing expectations about good guys and bad guys, victims and perpetrators. Yet Vera’s and Robert’s interests are diametrically opposed; if we root for the prisoner, we must necessarily root against the jailer. It’s hard to have your cake of moral ambiguity and eat your revenge narrative, too. Almodóvar’s insistence on having it both ways makes for a final act that’s less cathartic than simply confusing (though the film’s very last scene is masterful; the credits roll just a few seconds before you’re ready for them to, and you walk out of the film thinking about the moment you didn’t get to see).
Some of The Skin I Live In’s failure to connect can perhaps be laid at the feet of Antonio Banderas. While he’s custom-made for the brutish boy-toy roles he played in Almodóvar’s films of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the less-than-expressive Banderas (who was coached by his director to tamp down his performance) never quite gets across the internal torment of this emotionally stunted psychopath. Even tightly wound stoics—especially tightly wound stoics—have inner lives, but Dr. Robert Ledgard’s, though it can be surmised from his tragedy-packed backstory, remains inaccessible to us. Elena Anaya, on the other hand, invests her impossibly difficult role—without spoiling, let’s just say that Vera is a far cry from your average damsel in distress—with both strength and pathos. Though the story boils over with extreme acts of passion and vengeance, Almodóvar’s examination of these two damaged people’s troubled coexistence remains a cold (if impressively executed) formalist exercise. The Skin I Live In’s beauty is only skin deep.
Also in Slate, June Thomas watches every Almodóvar film and discovers his secrets.