The Skin I Live In is idiosyncratic Spanish director Pedro Almodovar’s 18th film and the first in 21 years to reunite him with his discovery, Antonio Banderas, whose career he launched as the hottest Castilian export since paella. Surreal but disappointingly drab, it’s still not the best Almodovar in years. Despite the usual Almodovar plot twists, kinky sex and themes of sexual identity reversal, gender bending and mad desire, the cult auteur has gone off the tracks and lost his compass. The result is stylish, but nothing more than a derivative horror movie about plastic surgery gone berserk that recalls all those old midnight shows about mad scientists playing God with Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lionel Atwill and George Zucco. The deadly rays from their secret labs must be heating up to a red alert with so much new interest in an old genre.
Based on the Thierry Jonque novel Tarantula, the sinister plot centers on Dr. Robert Ledgard (a lurid, sexy and riveting performance by Mr. Banderas), a handsome and wealthy but deranged plastic surgeon on the outskirts of Toledo who invents a “transgenic” therapy to create perfect human skin through the use of pig genes. Denounced by his peers, he retreats in secrecy to a palatial villa called El Cigarral, where he lives with an austere, chain-smoking, platinum-wigged housekeeper-cook named Marilia, who is really his own mother, and a beautiful mystery woman named Vera, whom he drugs with opium, wraps in a body stocking and holds prisoner in a locked, windowless room that he monitors night and day, the object of his macabre surgeries. Marilia sends sackcloth, double-sided tape, needles, scalpels and scissors for the doctor’s gruesome operations down to his lab in the basement in a dumbwaiter, guarding the experiments with her life. The precise nature of the relationships between these people takes a long time to unravel.
Everything changes when a weirdo dressed as a tiger arrives at the gate looking for Marilia and identifies himself through the security cameras by a birthmark on his rear end. He has just robbed Bulgari in Madrid and wants a face transplant. It appears he may have a dark history with Robert, as well as Vera, who every day looks more remarkably like Robert’s wife, who burned to death in a fire. Meanwhile, the movie meanders all over the place as time frames are juxtaposed to reveal an array of confusing clues from past and present, including a transsexual family secret. Chief among the revelations is a young man named Vicente, who raped and murdered the doctor’s beloved daughter years ago and then disappeared. What happened to him, and what is his relation to Vera? To reveal more would be disastrous to the shocking and violent conclusions Mr. Almodovar eventually draws. This is one you have to see for yourself. The film’s glamour—fashions by Jean Paul Gaultier, a jazzy score by flamenco fusion artist Concha Bulka, and huge framed Titians on the doctor’s walls—contrasts sharply to the dark, creepy gray color schemes. The Skin I Live In is not my favorite Almodovar film, but I’m happy to report he’s lost none of his flair for embellishing a sick, ghastly yarn with lavish, decadent flourishes that entertain while they keep you guessing.
THE SKIN I LIVE IN
Running Time 117 minutes
Written by Pedro Almovodar
Directed by Pedro Almovodar
Starring Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya and Jan Cornet