I generally like the films of Pedro Almodóvar, but I am not a devoted follower like some are. I may have to rethink my position after seeing my new favorite Almodóvar film, The Skin I Live In.
Antonio Banderas plays Robert, a plastic surgeon passionate about his work. He’s renowned among his colleagues. He even takes his work home with him. He’s been working on a way to grow new skin using cells from a pig and DNA from the patient. It’s ethically questionable, but Robert won’t let that stop progress.
The “work” Robert brings home is a young woman, Vera (Elena Anaya). Vera seems to be a well-kept prisoner, or possibly a very fragile patient. Robert stares at her perfect female form — no doubt enhanced by his skilled expertise — through closed-circuit TV cameras. His stare is not so much a leer, but rather a marvel at perfection and paternalistic pride. He checks in on her frequently to ensure she is doing well and treating her skin right.
The walls of her room are covered in handwritten scrawls and sketches that reveal a deeper neurosis, but she doesn’t show any anger or resentment to Robert. Is this a Pygmalion story? Perhaps Frankenstein? In any case, it’s an off-kilter situation that you must accept at face value and see where it goes.
Meanwhile, Robert’s housekeeper (Marisa Paredes) allows her son (Roberto Álamo) — dressed as a tiger for Carnaval and on the run from the cops — to come into the home. He sees Robert’s patient and causes a rift in the strange but stable household.
Halfway through the film, The Skin I Live In jumps back six years to fill in some missing detail. It introduces some new characters and situations — including Robert’s daughter and the boy who loves her. Almodóvar then slowly weaves the lines back together.
Back to Horror
As a warning to the squeamish, The Skin I Live In could be called a horror film. I know some people who would probably hate it, so approach it with caution. I also know some people — myself included — who would love it.
In lesser hands, the same material could have been used by a sensationalist hack to produce pure schlock. But The Skin I Live In is a classy, mature horror film. That’s no surprise, if you recall that Almodóvar’s early career included disturbing, serious films such as Matador.
For example, Almodóvar takes a minute to show (not tell) the process by which Robert’s “transgenic” skin is made. Many bad sci-fi and horror films just wave their hands over the MacGuffin and get on with it, but The Skin I Live In takes the time to do it well — not just gratuitously, but to show how serious and determined Banderas’ character is.
All of the characters are written and acted with great attention to detail. Every thought and action feels justified. Nobody acts for the mere convenience of the plot.
The film is then layered with somber, serious music, and with repeating themes of identity and of being defined by one’s history. There are ideas about interpersonal power between men and women — paternalism, coercion, obsession. All this on top of a masterful horror story, structured and paced exactly right.
The Skin I Live In is a new direction for Almodóvar, and it’s also a throwback to his older films. Its local release date just missed Halloween by a week, which is too bad for the exhibitors. It’s also a film that deserves to be seen at least twice, so perhaps they’ll make up the lost revenue with repeat visits. I’ll see you there.