In Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In, everyone has access to a gun. They rape, they maim, they kidnap, they kill. There are no candy colors, torrid romances, or women on the verge. (Well, there’s one woman on the verge, but she’s relatively chill about it, at least compared to the director’s past leading ladies.) Set in a surgeon’s palatial home-cum-clinic in Toledo, Spain, the film offers an unwavering glimpse at the horrors deep inside a not-so-funhouse, whose stately façade suggests occupants who have their shit together. “I’ve got insanity in my entrails,” bemoans the least insane person there.
But from the start, we know something’s not right. A woman in a nude body stocking (Elena Anaya) wraps bandages around small, grotesque sculptures in between meals she receives via a dumbwaiter. Meanwhile, the man of the house, Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), delivers a presentation about facial transplants as well as a startling innovation, artificial skin. His project was born after he lost his wife, a burn victim, to suicide. So he set out to fashion an epidermis that’s impervious to almost all harm—no burns, no bug bites, just smooth perfection. His work has nothing to do with vanity. Transplant operations have been “the most moving experiences of my life,” he tells his colleagues. “Our face identifies us.”
That last sentence is key to the film’s juicy gist. Fuck “I see dead people”: Almodovar can now add to his many laurels King of The Twist, delivering a near-masterful tale of macabre goings-on behind closed doors. And when I say closed, I mean locked. That body-stockinged woman, Vera, lives in a sort of human aquarium, a glass-enclosed room from which Robert watches her on closed circuit TV. Occasionally he brings her opium and admires his handiwork, though at one point that work is marred by Vera herself, cutting her new skin in desperation. “How long will this last?” she cries.
We learn that Robert hopes it’s forever. There’s something about Vera that disturbs his lifelong housekeeper, Marilia (Marisa Paredes). And when Marilia’s sadistic son, Zeca (Roberto Álamo), pays a visit dressed as a tiger (it’s Carnivale, but the costume is one of many touches that throws the film’s tone off-kilter), he lasciviously licks the security monitor as Vera stares into the camera; later, well, he pounces on her. Afterward, Vera tells Robert that Zeca acted as if he knew her.
The meaning behind that observation leads to a host of question marks, but they’re quibbles compared to the abrupt plot shift that Almodóvar (whose screenplay is an adaptation of a Thierry Jonquet novel) whips out about halfway through the film. Suddenly backing up six years, the story now involves Robert’s daughter, Cristina (Bárbara Lennie), a sociophobe who’s understandably traumatized by her mother’s death. She and her father are at a wedding, where another guest remarks how well Cristina seems to be handling interacting with others. Cristina’s doing so well, in fact, that she enchants a handsome young man, Vincente (Jan Cornet), who leads her out into a garden in which everyone seems to be making out. What happens next suggests that Cristina would have been best off playing wallflower.
The Skin I Live In then follows the Vincente storyline at such a leisurely pace that you wonder whether Almodóvar forgot about the first half of the film. It’s a distraction that might have been more adroitly handled; combined with a couple of other holes in the plot, it keeps the film just shy of being a Hitchcockian masterpiece.
Still, Almodóvar knows well the mechanics of a thriller. He often shoots from ceiling heights, leaving us to peer downward at everything from the housekeeper’s careful creeping through dark rooms to the practice of some very bad medicine. With scarce music, the film is very quiet, chilling, and tense—hardly the cheeky Almodóvarian pleasure party cinéastes have become accustomed to.
Vera’s character gets feisty at times, but she’s meek by Almodóvar standards. She’s an experiment and a plaything, a cipher onto which Robert and Zeca project their fantasies—and a particularly gorgeous one, even when scarred or bloodied. Usually it’s the worst criticism to call an actor blank, but when you see no spark behind Anaya’s eyes, you know she’s getting the part just right.
It’s Banderas’ performance that’s most crucial to the mood. His Robert is as slick and cool-headed as you’d expect a renowned surgeon to be—at least among his peers. When he’s angry and vengeful, however, he’s calculated rather than maniacal. But dude’s messed up, albeit in a most delicious way. He gets what he wants. And he gets what’s coming to him. Almodóvar’s achievement here—not totally unlike most of his movies, which revel in a different kind of gustatory pleasure—is that he makes each development a confection.