A mesmerizing sick joke by maestro-fetishist Pedro Almodovar. The Skin I Live In is in particular a meditation on Almodovar’s themes of confused sexual identity, bi-sexual and heterosexual orientation (in “The Skin I Live In,” that idea is a tease) and the physical-corporeal nature of women. This is also, really without doubt, the most visually stunning and voluptuous of his films. Even more so than his florid work in “Broken Embraces” (2009) or “Volver” (2006). It’s almost as if he chose to blow up his images to larger than life dimensions. His use of color is brash, full of sharp contrasts, emphasizing red hues. It surprisingly compliments his sci-fi concept that meets a matter of fact frankness. Antonio Banderas stars as Dr. Robert Ledgard, an innovative plastic surgeon who has created new skin that will heal burn victims or perhaps remold the human body in special cases. In order to test out his invention, he needs a human test subject.
Antonio Banderas hasn’t been this good in years (not since his slippery, fiendish work in 2002’s “Femme Fatale”). Oh, the inexpressiveness and subdued emotions, Almodovar was right in asking for less from Banderas in order to get more. You expect a doctor who lost his wife to a burning car crash and his daughter to paranoid schizophrenia to succumb to disillusion. The trauma, it reveals, has not only compromised his state of mind but has warped his professional ethics.
And Elena Anaya (seen in France’s “Point Blank” earlier this year) is spectacular in a performance that can be seen and analyzed in two halves of a film that shifts expectations from the first half to the second. From the beginning, her character Vera never looks comfortable in her new transplant skin. But of course, she is hidden in bandages and masks. What besides performing yoga and writing on walls is she supposed to do while she waits for months in an enclosed facility while under observation for, what must be, potential side effects. We get the sense of a lonely, self-doubting and heartbroken human being hungering for acceptance. She makes flirtatious, baiting comments at Dr. Ledgard.
Honestly, the last half of the movie made me uncomfortable. But I couldn’t turn away. I suppose this a tribute to Almodovar’s power and indication that he’s at the top of his game. Looking at Anaya made me queasy when I understood the deeper, stranger facets. Almodovar has approached her character in a deeply disturbing, transfixing, trans-mutating way. I can’t lie that I had problems of a different nature: I did in all honesty feel queasy in my own skin. I needed analysis on myself after I came out of Almodovar’s spell.
I couldn’t guess where this film was going. I was momentarily annoyed when halfway through it went into a flashback of “years ago.” I feel lengthy, back story flashbacks never work, and so I was waiting disheartened for the narrative thread of the film to break. This became a rare time when flashbacks worked. It tripped me up then had me in flabbergast over myself, making me see everything in a brand new light, spinning my head, and striking a slam to the face of anything remotely conventional. Feeling certain that “The Skin I Live In” will never leave my head, I have to say it is Almodovar’s best film since “Talk to Her” (2002).
117 Minutes. Rated R.
TWISTED DRAMA / STRANGE AVANTE-GARDE / SATURDAY NIGHT GOOSEBUMPS
Film Cousins: “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976); “Safe” (1995); “Crash” (1996); “Audition” (2001, Japan); “The Piano Teacher” (2002, France); “Time” (2006, South Korea).