If there is a foreign filmmaker who is accessible to schlock fiends, it’s definitely Pedro Almodovar. Any guy who incorporates a snippet of Bloody Moon into the opening of one of his films (Matador) has to have a little schlock in his heart — and Almodovar never shies away from material that the Hollywood crowd would find disconcerting: sex, violence, perversion and twisted family relationships are important components of his storylines. However, he manages to explore these topics in ways that are socially acceptable to the highbrow crowd and informed by a rich aesthetic. It’s the best of both worlds: shocking stuff delivered with genuine aesthetic depth.
To make this proposition even better, Almodovar has refined his approach to his themes in recent years. Since All About My Mother, he’s developed an ability to combine his obsessions (shocking subject matter, classic Hollywood filmmaking conventions, strong leading ladies) with new levels of artistic discipline and narrative focus to create the best work of his career. His latest film, The Skin I Live In, takes some horror and revenge-movie tropes familiar to any self-respecting cult movie buff from Les Yeux San Visage and pushes them into new, disturbing and sometimes oddly beautiful directions.
This is all you need to know going in: Antonio Banderas toplines as Dr. Robert Ledgard, a stylish, intense surgeon who specials in reconstructive surgery for the victims of terrible accidents. In his house, there is Marilia (Marisa Peredes), a housekeeper who is zealously protective of Dr. Ledgard, and a mysterious young woman named Vera (Elena Anaya). Vera is kept under lock and key — and may or may not be Ledgard’s wife. The bubbling tensions of this household boil over when an unwanted former visitor shows up at the door while the doctor is away… kicking off a tidal wave of kink, murders and revelations that reveal the secret history of the household.
The remainder of the plot is best left to the audience to discover for themselves because The Skin I Live In is the kind of film that thrives on surprise and sudden turnabouts in audience perception. Almodovar also does some delightfully tricky things with story structure, setting up contrasting memories of characters in flashback form that bounce the same scenes between each other while casting very different reflections. This technique demands your full attention but it reaps dividends as Almodovar wrings out an array of tormented twists from his storyline.
The wild nature of the plot could have easily gone awry but a trio of straightfaced lead performances keep it grounded. It’s great to see Banderas return to work with his old cinematic mentor but there’s more at play than nostalgia here: his subtle, carefully shaded performance here gives a new coat of paint to the mad doctor archetype, leaving the audience reeling as they try to figure out if he is tragic, monstrous or both. Peredes has a smaller but still important role as the housekeeper, bringing a nice gravitas to her function as a repressed keeper of secrets. There’s also stellar work by Anaya in an extremely demanding role that requires to her bare both body and soul as she provides the physical representation of the film’s dark, tormented secrets.
However, the element that seals the appeal of The Skin I Live In is Almodovar’s beautifully stylized visual approach. The elegant set design provides an often dazzling backdrop for the horrors and the subtle camerawork and painterly compositions lend beauty to the grimmest turns of the plotline. Jean-Paul Gaultier supervised the wardrobe, which brings an elegance to even the simplest garment (like the skintight bodysuit Vera wears). The loving care of the visual design adds a ritualized quality to the events here: even the brief surgery scenes have the feel of decadent pageantry to them. This might be the most gorgeous-looking mad doctor movie ever made.
In short, this is another gem from the “mature” period of Almodovar’s career. The Skin I Live In is getting criticism in some quarters for being too clever and not as emotionally relatable as some of his recent films — but this criticism fails to see the film for what it is: a loving, painstakingly rendered tribute to horror science-gone-wrong subgenre that is infused with the mixture of style, dark wit and passion that can only be found in an Almodovar film.