Considering the fact that I’ve given five stars to every Pedro Almodóvar film since Live Flesh (1997), it will come as no great shock that his latest, The Skin I Live In, also comes in for the full five. It will almost certainly be in the top two or three on my “best of 2011” list, and it’s a film I can’t wait to see again. And being an Almodóvar work, it’s also the sort of film that will very likely alienate and even infuriate some viewers—though probably not to the extent that Bad Education did in 2004. That said, I’d say it’s far more likely to upset people than Volver (2006) or Broken Embraces (2009) did. The Skin I Live In is wildly over-the-top, provocative, disturbing, melodramatic, bizarre and colorful, which is pretty much just saying it’s an Almodóvar film. But there’s a bit more—and it’s inherent in both the story and theme.
Antonio Banderas (in his first film for Almodovar since Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! in 1990) stars as Dr. Robert Ledgard, a plastic surgeon who can only be described as a mad scientist. Though the film is structured in such a way that not everything about his motives is clear for some considerable time, it is immediately clear that he is not only driven by some central experience to perfect a synthetic skin that can stand up to just about any kind of assault on it, but that he has a captive woman, Vera (Elena Anaya, Point Blank), on whom he is conducting his experiments. He also has a devoted housekeeper, Marilia (Almodóvar regular Marisa Paredes), who is in on the experiment, but who is also not happy about what is going on—even though not for reasons that have anything to do with ethics, but rather with the nature of his obsession.
The full nature of Ledgard’s obsession is only revealed slowly over the course of the film through a very labyrinthian plot that is developed in a nonlinear manner that is extreme even in Almodóvar terms. (I am giving away very little of the story here.) The film starts and concludes in the near future—2012—then suddenly backtracks to six years earlier. But even that doesn’t describe the structure, since the flashback occasionally doubles back on itself by repeating certain actions, and there are other flashbacks that occur via a story being told. This is not a structure created for its own sake, but one designed to maintain the full impact of the story’s complexity throughout the film. Everything about The Skin I Live In is ultimately as precise as Ledgard’s scalpel.
In fact, the one thing that seemed a bit less than I expect from Almodóvar—namely, a deep emotional resonance lying beneath the amplified soap opera central to all his films, including this one—wasn’t brought into focus until the very last scene. I suspect it will emerge earlier on a second viewing. Yes, this is a film that will benefit by being seen twice. The first time is for the nearly constant barrage of surprising connections that occur throughout the film. The second time is to appreciate the actual depth of what we were witnessing on that first viewing.
What is likely to disturb some viewers—beyond the usual manner in which Almodóvar refuses to judge his characters as good or evil, which is an inherent problem for some—is the depiction of the obsessional relationship between Ledgard and Vera as a two-way street. Although the exact nature of her obsession with him is not made clear until the very end of the film (and even then, not entirely), she is—or has become—just as fixated on him as he is with her. This significantly adds to the film’s potentially creepy factor, but that creepiness—including the extent and actual nature of Ledgard’s obsession—is really part and parcel of the entire film.
Admirers of Almodóvar—and those who are not bothered by his ability to accept almost any excess as a part of life and art—will quickly find themselves at home with the film. It opens on a full note of mystery and melodrama—right down to the Alberto Iglesias score—with the story already underway behind the walls surrounding the grounds of Ledgard’s house, and it never really lets up as it weaves its bizarre and complex story. This, after all, is a film in which a man (Roberto Álamo) can show up in a tiger suit and prove his identity by dropping his pants to reveal a birthmark, and we never question it because—well, it’s Almodóvar.
What may, however, surprise some is how dark the film is. It is, in fact, probably the darkest film of Almodóvar’s career. There are, as usual, evocations of other movies within The Skin I Live In—the most notable being Georges Franju’s Les Yeux sans Visage (1960) and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). One is apt to get a certain sense of David Cronenberg and Brian De Palma, too. In fact, there are elements of De Palma’s underrated Antonio Banderas film Femme Fatale (2002) lurking about the edges. But in the end, The Skin I Live In is completely its own film and completely Almodóvar—with everything that implies. Rated R for disturbing violent content including sexual assault, strong sexuality, graphic nudity, drug use and language.