The Skin I Live In – Review



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Revenge is a dish best served with surgical gloves.

Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In is many things. It’s a dark, twisted tale that pays homage to several works. It is also a beautiful nightmare, as colorful as it is perverse. The film contains what his audience expects: flashbacks and conflicted souls. It also contains objects and acts one associates with a B-grade feature: mad scientists, strange costumes, rape, kidnapping, and murder.

With his beautifully crafted nightmare Almodóvar is a confectionary chef making bloody popcorn, taking a dash of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Eyes Without a Face, and Frankenstein, with Antonio Banderas in a role that would have undoubtedly have been played by Vincent Price a half century ago.

Banderas plays Dr. Robert Ledgard, a brilliant facial transplant surgeon who is as proficient with a scalpel as a tailor is with needle and thread. Much like Almodóvar’s muse Penelope Cruz, who is at her best when working with the Spanish director, Banderas shows more here than he has in his many years working in Hollywood. Outside of playing a mariachi with a killer guitar case (Desperado), and more recently providing the voice behind the feisty feline Puss in Boots (which is his Mask of Zorro character turned up nine lives), Banderas has been undervalued as a leading man, relegating his talents for lame suspense thrillers and senseless action movies.

Audiences outside of Banderas’ native Spain, at first, may look at him and think Zorro, and thus be easily distracted as to what he really is: a mad scientist. With conviction he gives a lecture to a group of contemporaries that he has perfected a synthetic skin to be used in the treatment of burn victims. However, the skin isn’t completely synthetic nor is it entirely human.

Even the doctor’s living quarters hints that he is a mad scientist. His mansion in Toldeo is opulently furnished, and with walls adorned with elegant painting of beautiful nudes. He has a surgical suite adjacent to the house that’s nowhere near as elegant, keeping the cold and sterile illusion in tact. And he has a basement that is the perfect holding cell for victims he looks to cut into.

As the film begins, the beautiful Vera (Elena Anaya) is in one of the mansion’s many rooms. She looks comfortable, carefully performing yoga in a flesh-colored body suit. The visual is quite unexpected and could be viewed as disturbing, but could be easily explained as being a compression suit she uses to reduce muscle fatigue from various yoga movements. Receiving breakfast through a dumbwaiter by the servants would make her appear spoiled, which she is not. For Vera is not a guest of Dr. Ledgard. She is his prisoner. He watches her on closed-circuit TV, able to zoom the camera in to get a closer look at her beautiful face.

The question regarding the doctor’s sanity is not just speculated; it’s answered as a descriptor from the residing housekeeper (Marisa Paredes) – because every mad scientist needs an assistant. She tells us that Robert has made alterations to Vera’s face, making her have a strong resemblance to his deceased wife, who suffered severe burns from a car accident. When she later takes her own life the doctor is stunned. The trauma of dealing with his wife’s passing transfers to rage when his daughter is later raped. But rather than be a simple tale of revenge, where the doctor tracks down the rapist and kills him, Almodóvar has something more sinister in store.

A subplot involving the housekeeper’s criminal son, Zeca (Roberto Álamo), who eludes authorities dressed as a tiger during Carnival, returning to the mansion to lay low triggers a series of violent events that I hinted as B-grade feature truisms.  More importantly, the actions allow us to see into the past to events leading up to Robert Ledgrad’s fanatical obsession with his current project.

Who Vera is and why she’s being held against captive will be revealed in due course. But any more hints will have to wait. For this is a psychological horror feature that’s better to be recommended than it is to fully explain. Because to go too far with the explanation would undercut the film’s emotional impact when that last reveal finally occurs. Calling it a whopper would be an understatement.

With The Skin I Live In being the first Almodóvar I’ve watched in full, I can only base my conclusions from other critical writings of his work, and that’s to say that this isn’t a typical Almodóvar film. Much like Martin Scorsese sampled with psychological pulp fiction with last year’s Shutter Island, Almodóvar takes the skeleton of Thierry Jonquet’s novel Tarantula and expertly applies his cinematic stamp. This is a cleverly plotted thriller of a simple horror story with strong complexion. It doesn’t need a single nip or tuck.

Writer/Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Notable Cast: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes, Roberto Álamo

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