When I was first introduced to the work of Pedro Almodovar, I was in college, and the only local arthouse theater booked a one-week run of “Matador.” This was well before he had become internationally respectable, before he turned into one of the masters of melodrama, when he was still this slightly crazy Spanish indie upstart making sex-soaked movies about death and madness. “Matador” also marked the first time I saw Antonio Banderas in something, and the two of them seemed to be in tune with one another. I love when filmmakers and actors have ongoing creative relationships because you see all sorts of interesting things happen over the course of time. Little wonder, then, that “The Skin I Live In” marks a return to the early crazy grindhouse sensibilities of Almodovar since it is his first collaboration with Banderas in over a decade.
This is a hard film to discuss without spoilers, but I’m going to do my best to not ruin things. After all, when I walked in and sat down, I knew nothing beyond having seen a few still images, and with a film like this, built around a mid-movie paradigm shift, it is incredibly easy to ruin the experience for someone else with one or two careless word choices. Based on a novel by Thierry Jonquet, this is a mad scientist film wrapped in a disturbing exploration of gender politics, and it unfolds with an overheated intensity that I found both darkly hilarious and occasionally even moving.
Robert Ledgard (Banderas) is a brilliant plastic surgeon who works on the very cutting edge, especially in regards to the research he’s doing on new synthetic skins. He’s created one that he believes is stronger and more resistant to damage than human skin, and while he claims in a public lecture to have tested it on mice, it’s a safe bet that Ledgard’s been crossing ethical lines in private. Indeed, the other main character in the movie is a mysterious woman kept locked away in captivity in Robert’s country home, a private clinic. This woman, known only as Vera (Elena Anaya), wears a strange asexual bodysuit and spends her days trying to figure out a way to escape this solitary life. The only other person she sees or deals with is Marilia (regular collaborator Marisa Paredes), Robert’s housekeeper, who is willing to help make Vera comfortable up to a point, her loyalty to Robert absolute. Things come to a head when Marilia’s son Zeca (Roberto Alamo) shows up at the house looking for sanctuary.
What is Robert’s master plan? What is his endgame with the experiments he’s conducting on Vera? Who is Vera? Why is she kept there as a prisoner? How did she meet Robert? Why did Zeca return? Why did he leave in the first place? All of these questions and more are posed by the first half of the film, and the film takes great delight in drawing out the answers. Once Almodovar finally reveals his reveals, the punches come fast and ludicrous, and it’s obvious that this isn’t meant as any sort of strict reality. Instead, Almodovar is playing in big broad strokes, painting in primary colors, and it’s all sort of lurid and broken and sad underneath.
Banderas is very good here, and I love seeing him return to this sort of thing. Hollywood long since swallowed him up, happily, and I’m sure that “Puss In Boots” will make a bazillion dollars around the world this holiday season, but there is a dark side to him, a gleeful perversity in the way he tweaks his matinee idol looks, that has made it a pleasure to watch him become iconographic even as he subverts it. Elena Anaya is stunning as always, and the particular demands of this role make it hard to compare it to anything else she’s done. I first noticed her a decade ago because, frankly, if you are a heterosexual male and you watch “Sex and Lucia,” you are chemically obligated to notice her. It’s that sort of a role. She’s been doing very good work in film after film since then, and just this year, she’s in both this and “Point Blank,” two strong international films with very different roles for her. Almodovar is known first and foremost by doing right by his actresses, and Anaya is certainly given a lot of ground to cover here. So is Paredes, and so is Blanca Suarez, who plays Norma, Robert’s daughter. Almodovar shows the way violence echoes through lives, and the way sexual violence can break and damage a victim, and yet he’s shooting it through the filter of this sort of highly-stylized overt reference to “Eyes Without A Face” and other mad scientist cinema.
Although Almodovar has collaborated with a number of great cinematographers, I think it’s safe to say that Jose Luis Alcaine has been one of the guys who has helped visually define Almodovar as a filmmaker. He shot “Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown,” for example, and he was the guy behind the supercharged comic book hypersexuality of “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” as well. He’s working in a cool reserve here, everything sterile and sharp and cold like the instruments in Robert’s operating room. This is a film that treats skin as a page to be written on, not a living surface to touch. There is a remove that feels very intentional, and it’s a sign of just how controlled these guys are when they’re approaching each new film.
I don’t think “The Skin I Live In” is for everyone. Fans of movies like “All About My Mother” and “Volver” might not expect this sort of queasy game, but people who remember the way Almodovar was introduced to us, the rude and vulgar surrealist behind “Law Of Desire” and “Dark Habits” may find themselves fondly flashing back. He may be respectable these days, but this movie is proof that behind closed doors, Almodovar is still one of cinema’s reigning kings of kink.
“The Skin I Live In” opens in the US October 14, 2011, in limited release.