Pedro Almodovar has long since been the master of melodrama. A filmmaker so seeped in the operatic of life that it is easy to over look the honest brutality he chooses to depict. The Skin I Live In is no exception to that rule but it does steer Almodovar into a new, and frankly startling, genre in the form of body horror come warped psycho-sexual romance.
Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) is a genius plastic surgeon who has invented a new form of skin. It is impervious to burns, insect bites and who knows what else. The only problem is he has invented it by experimenting on the beautiful Vera (Elena Anaya) who resides, unseen or heard by the rest of the world, in Ledgard’s country retreat. Her only access to the outside world is through Ledgard and via intercome to Legard’s house-keep, the mysterious, Marilia (Marisa Paredes). Through some startling revelations, horrific flashbacks and a bank-robber dressed as a tiger we come to learn that no one and nothing is what it first appears to be.
Owing much to films like Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and Georges Franju’s masterpiece Eyes Without A Face (1960) The Skin I Live In is a startling insight into human identity and sexual desire. As Ledgard puts it to a room of academics “Our face identifies us” and yet he seems determined to alter, mask and reshape faces to suit the identity he or a patient choose.
While his characters might be at odds with their own identity what holds the frankly maniacal plot together is Almodovar’s direction. This is, without doubt, a visually Almodovar film. Chock full of vibrant colours and sexual provocation in almost every shot it is a film that positively flirts with you only to leave you reeling at startling revelations. Almodovar himself has suggested that this is a horror film without any of the fear or horror. Indeed Almodovar paints his characters with such intricate brush strokes you cannot help but feel sympathy for most of them.
With this in mind it is credit to the central performances on offer for breathing life into these broken and disturbing characters. Elena Anaya gives a vampish yet timid injection to the imprisoned Vera. One minute she can be slinking her way round in a skin toned leotard the next she is being brutally assaulted by a man dressed as a tiger. To call her performance brave feels clichéd but ballsy feels like an understatement. Bandera, returning to the Almodova fold for the first time since 1990’s Tie Me Up Tie Me Down, is a revelation. As Ledgard he is suave, graceful yet utterly insane beneath that steely exterior. A man who has been so turned around by trauma and genius in his life it is hard to tell which way is up. But with Banderas you always care for him, he is not a boo-hiss psychopath but a broken man trying to right the wrongs of others by committing unforgivable atrocities himself. To put it bluntly, murder is the least hostile act this man is capable of.
It will not be to everyone’s liking but The Skin I Live In is an example of a master at work, both on screen and off it. Like his protagonist Almodovar is in touch with his inner demons, unlike him we hope he is not in the habit of kidnapping, operating on and heaven knows what else to people.