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.