The latest from director Pedro Almodóvar is hard to give a single rating, because it seems to be trying to be four or five movies at once. One of those films-within-a-film is the type of classy drama the Spanish auteur gets awards for: the story of a winsome young woman under duress (Elena Anaya), who fortifies herself with yoga and the art of Louise Bourgeois. But the movie is also a glossy thriller — and a mad-scientist horror flick.
Finally, despite its higher budget and chillier tone, The Skin I Live In is a throwback to the early days when Almodóvar’s films played like telenovelas directed by John Waters: Anything could happen, and many wacky, random and disturbing things did. In short, be prepared for moments of art-film beauty and pathos. But also for a brutal sexual assault performed by a guy in a tiger costume.
Antonio Banderas plays Robert Ledgard, an elite plastic surgeon obsessed with the goal of using transgenic therapy to toughen the human skin. (He avails himself of pig DNA.) Like the mad scientist in Georges Franju’s horror classic Eyes Without a Face, Ledgard has a personal motivation — his wife died after suffering hideous burns — and he keeps a human guinea pig locked up in his sumptuous home. That’s Anaya, who traipses around her luxurious modernist prison wearing a body stocking.
For the first half hour or so, Almodóvar chronicles the creepily tender relationship between the doctor and his mysterious captive, using a style that could only be called clinical. When the plot finally kicks into gear, it lurches wildly in one direction, then in another, then into an extended flashback, before delivering a revelation that finally puts the film on course to the last frame.
By that time, squeamish members of the audience may have bowed out, while horror fans may resent the director’s apparent lack of interest in exploring his original premise. Despite the promise of Cronenbergian surgical shenanigans, the film ends up being more emotionally than viscerally grotesque.
Adapting a short work by French noir novelist Thierry Jonquet, Almodóvar has added so much stylish window dressing that the central narrative of abuse, revenge and folie à deux takes time to emerge. When it does, however, it’s genuinely shocking and compelling, in large part because of Anaya’s nuanced performance. Wan and watchful, she keeps her captor and the viewers guessing about whether she’s fallen prey to Stockholm syndrome or is just biding her time.
The script gives Banderas’ character so many motivations — some believable, others plain campy — that he comes across as a sleek, sinister archetype, not a person. Marisa Paredes, Blanca Suárez and Jan Cornet are more memorable in their supporting roles.
Thematically, Almodóvar seems to be getting at something about the skins and clothes we wear to protect ourselves, the identities they conceal and create, and the impossibility of shielding ourselves against pain. It’s easy to see why the material attracted him, but the film is so muddled that all it conveys clearly, in the end, is the strange pathos of the central character — whose plight, one hopes, is unique even in fiction.
Still, for those who remember his early style with fondness, a crazy mess from Almodóvar is preferable to a coherent film from most directors. It may be something of a Frankenstein’s monster, assembled of crudely severed parts from better movies, but The Skin I Live In is very much alive.