Don't read anything about Pedro Almodóvar's The Skin I Live In. Don't watch the trailers. Don't read the synopsis of the novel on which it's based. The Skin I Live In is the kind of movie that ideally would only be discussed after the first or second viewing, over dinner (if you can stomach it) or drinks.
Naturally, this makes it a very difficult movie to review. It absolutely warrants a dissection as meticulous as the surgeries that Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) performs. It's as obsessive as Ledgard in his quest to create a stronger skin to protect or, in some cases, jail its wearer. Its story of survival at any cost and the horror behind all the different sorts of masks people wear is best experienced all at once, like the heft of an oncoming freight train.
Ledgard is a highly respected plastic surgeon whose outward dedication is to making life better for burn victims, especially those whose faces are destroyed beyond recognition, hides a much deeper, darker mission. His is the sort of amorality that is the result of an incredible intellect mixed with gobs and gobs of money; he is tempted to play God and has the resources to do so. Attached to his gorgeous mansion is a pristine clinic where he and other doctors gather to perform surgeries on clients who prefer more privacy. It's here that Ledgard's illicit experiments with transgenesis begin. His house is a luxurious prison for his guinea pig Vera; Ledgard's housekeeper Marilia keeps a wary eye on her from monitors in the kitchen, while Ledgard himself watches her on giant screens in his bedroom. Vera is forced to wear a body suit to heal and mold her skin, and she spends her days reading, making art, and doing yoga. The true horror of their story goes beyond the unethical surgeries Ledgard performs or the scrutiny Vera endures, and is best left to the skill of Pedro Almodóvar himself.
While the themes of Almodóvar's movies are front and center, the tone is a departure for the director. While there are some touches of humor, Skin avoids most of the quirk or magical realism present in much of his work. It's refreshing to see Banderas play a serious character; although his work with Almodóvar arguably set the stage for his rise in Hollywood, there have been far too many Spy Kids and Shrek movies since, say, Philadelphia to remind us of his talent. (It's bizarre to contemplate The Skin I Live In opening in LA and NYC exactly two weeks before Puss in Boots.) As his housekeeper Marilia, Almodóvar regular Marisa Paredes is excellent; it's worth noting she's no stranger to psychological horror, as per her roles in The Devil's Backbone and In a Glass Cage. Elena Anaya (Sex and Lucia, Almodóvar's Talk to Her, and Mesrine) plays Vera, and no one -- the camera, Ledgard, the viewer -- can look away from her.
The aesthetic of the film is also quite different from previous Almodóvar works. It's colorful and even lush at times, but the expensive art and high-end technology that keeps Vera locked up tight speaks volumes about Ledgard's wealth and compulsive desire to control everything around him. The eerie, patchwork sculptures of Louise Bourgeois mirror Vera's body and inspires her art, and also mirrors the special skin suit designed by Jean Paul Gaultier for the movie. Everything about Skin, including the long list of companies and designers in the credits, reeks of wealth and privilege, and the possibilities for corruption that comes with those advantages.
It's easy to get swept into the melodrama of the second and third acts of the film, but it's unfortunate that transgenesis and Ledgard's increasingly questionable scientific methods being met with skepticism by his colleagues is dropped until the very end. Almodóvar readily admits that Eyes Without a Face is an inspiration, which is impossible to miss from the striking images of Anaya in the masks that sculpt her face into shape, but other influences creep in. There's Frankenstein, of course, and countless other mad scientists, so it's disappointing that this particular thread is dropped. On the other hand, it would be hard to wedge it into what turns into a frothy, gun-happy soap opera of family secrets, sexual obsession, and psychological torture. Surprisingly, The Skin I Live In is not nearly as gory as one might assume from its subject; the crawling of your skin is empathetic and inevitable.