A dark, provocative, and even disturbing thriller, The Skin I Live In represents a change of pace for Pedro Almodóvar, perhaps Spain’s most prolific contemporary filmmaker.
Never one to shy away from the kinky or the depraved, Almodóvar (at least partially) abandoned his bad-taste reveling in the late 90s with a string of successes that stand among his best work: Live Flesh, All About My Mother, and my personal favorite, the masterful Talk to Her.
On a technical and artistic level, The Skin I Live In matches Almodóvar’s best work, with meticulous shot composition and set design, and careful, slow-burn suspense storytelling that recalls Chabrol or even Hitchcock.
Thematically, however, this plunges the depths of earlier works like Matador or Law of Desire. It may go even further; this is the closest Almodóvar has come to what might be called horror, recalling, at times, Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face.
Skin stars Antonio Banderas (who rose to fame through Almodóvar’s films in the 80s) as cosmetic surgeon and skin doctor Robert Ledgard, currently working on a new type of synthetic skin. His project is named Gal, after his late wife, who died after receiving horrific burns in a car accident. The doctor lives and works in a luxurious mansion estate inherited from his parents and tended to by maid and mother figure Marilia (Marisa Paredes).
And upstairs, locked in a room with food and books sent up by dumbwaiter, practicing yoga in a tan bodysuit, lives Vera (Elena Anaya). Vera is the doctor’s human guinea pig, aloof and wide-eyed. His wife? Daughter? Lover? The true nature of their relationship is carefully obscured for much of the film.
This creepily idyllic setting is disrupted by the arrival of Zeca (Roberto Álamo), Marisa’s son, a criminal on the run decked out in a tiger outfit for carnival. Mom doesn’t seem to care much for Zeca, who is entranced by Vera and has some unsettled business with Dr. Ledgard…
That’s just barely scratching the surface of The Skin I Live In, but any more should not be read before seeing the movie: one of its greatest strengths – and, perhaps, its principal focus – is the surprises it has in store, the unexpected places Almodóvar takes the story and the layers of backstory he reveals.
Yet there are no “aha!” thriller twists here; instead, the story slowly becomes clearer as we progress through the second act, until we eventually, disquietingly, learn the true nature of the characters’ relationship.
While I can’t imagine this story being told any other way, the initial aloofness and the jumping back and in time (the entire midsection of the movie begins six years prior to the events at the start) do throw the viewer off; while individual scenes may contain a great deal of suspense, the overall story tension is harder to grasp, and some patience is required.
In the hands of other filmmakers, The Skin I Live In might have become the ultimate revenge fantasy. All the elements are here, but Almodóvar is far more interested in his characters than what they do to each other. There is no black & white good and evil, but instead murky levels of grey that are sure to provoke a reaction.
Banderas is downright chilling as the doctor (this is easily the best he’s been in years), balanced somewhat by a more sympathetic turn by Paredes. But the standout in the cast is Anaya, sleek and seductive, who takes an extremely difficult role and makes it feel real.
Technical credits are expectedly first-rate, with perfect clinical-clean cinematography by José Luis Alcaine and a particularly effective original score by Alberto Iglesias (both frequent Almodóvar collaborators).