Global auteurs like Pedro Almodóvar, once they reach a certain stage in their career, tend to make films that feel very much of a piece with the earlier work that brought them their acclaim.
So it’s fascinating to look at a movie like “The Skin I Live In,” which deals with many of the director’s ongoing obsessions (identity, gender, romantic obsession), while standing apart from the tone you might expect.
Antonio Banderas, whose sexy roles in the director’s “Law of Desire” and “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” launched his international career, returns to his original mentor in the role of Robert, an acclaimed plastic surgeon focused on creating an artificial skin after his beloved wife Vera (Elena Anaya) burned to death in an auto accident. (He’s not above breaking an ethical law or two in the lab to make his scientific breakthrough, but his early actions pale against the capabilities we will later discover.)
But wait — isn’t that Vera who’s locked up in a palatial suite in Robert’s house, wearing a full-body stocking to protect her skin and being watched constantly via huge video screens? And what exactly happened to their daughter, Norma (Blanca Suárez), and why can’t she leave the hospital? And what dark secrets is housekeeper Marilia (Almodóvar vet Marisa Paredes) keeping to herself?
Much of “The Skin I Live In” is told out of sequence, and a great deal of its morbid fascination comes from the revelation of these and other mysteries, so I’ll keep it vague.
But viewers should prepare themselves for a film that’s more about character than it is about plot, leading up to conclusion that doesn’t have the traditional end-of-third-act catharsis that the last 100 years or so of movies have conditioned us to expect.
While the screenplay — written by Almodóvar “with the collaboration of” his brother Agustín, based on Thierry Jonquet’s “Mygale” — offers chilling character motivations and despicable behavior, it’s the acting and the art direction that bring “Skin” to vivid, terrifying life.
Banderas so rarely gets to play unsympathetic characters, even though his “Law of Desire” role was basically the gay equivalent of Glenn Close’s home-wrecking psycho in “Fatal Attraction,” but he makes Robert a vividly monstrous creation.
Arrogant, unfeeling and utterly lacking a moral compass, he’s one of the screen’s most sleek yet off-putting physicians since Jeremy Irons’ double duty in “Dead Ringers.”
More than his match, however, is Anaya, who has appeared in some international productions, but probably remains best known for her supporting roles in “Sex and Lucía” and “Talk to Her.”
Clad in a flesh-colored sheath up to her neck and twisting herself into seemingly impossible yoga poses, Anaya’s Vera slowly unfolds as a character who’s hiding a shocking past behind a seemingly in-control façade, and she joins the pantheon of unforgettable Almodóvar characters.
As for the film’s visual style, the director brings his unfailing eye for both beauty and grotesquerie, between the slick surfaces of Vera’s room, the high-tech gothic chill of Robert’s lab, and the Louise Bourgeois–inspired figures that Vera creates, all underscored by another compellingly haunting Alberto Iglesias soundtrack.
Almodóvar seems to be one of the few directors today who’s not afraid to let his aesthetic tastes be reflected in his cinematic output. Whether it’s the choreography of Pina Bausch in “Talk to Her” or Bourgeois’ patchwork sculpture here, he shows no fear of aiming high and hoping that the audience will follow him.
“The Skin I Live In” features almost no comic relief, takes its time telling its story, and conjures up imagery (suggestively, without being explicit) that might make even “Human Centipede” fans flinch, so it’s no surprise that it’s already dividing audiences, critics, and even Almodóvar fans.
For me, it was a disturbing experiment in terror that calls to mind some of the all-time horror classics — particularly Georges Franju’s “Eyes Without a Face” — while boldly striking out on its own.