Anyone familiar with Pedro Almodóvar’s work will probably not be too surprised at the following adjectives that are applicable to his new film The Skin I Live In: lurid, operatic, lush and gender-bending. But even if he’s ploughing a familiar furrow thematically speaking this one’s still worth a look even if you’re up to here with vexed mother-son relationships, transsexuals, retina-searingly vivid costumes and bondage, as he sure knows how to tell an original story you’ll have a hard time second guessing with undeniable panache.
This one’s basically a classy and elegant horror film, I guess, as opposed to a comedy or melodrama, and the main point of reference is probably Georges Franju’s haunting 1950s shocker Eyes Without A Face, which like Almodóvar’s movie features a brilliant but obsessed plastic surgeon who appears to be conducting experiments involving human skin tissue in the seclusion of his opulent and isolated villa. The Skin I Live In is far from a remake, however: in contrast to Franju’s pared-down narrative, this film has a slew of baroque (and sometimes distracting) sub-plots involving colourful minor characters and has a complex structure, with many jumps back and forth along its time-line. This has the effect of keeping the viewer slightly bewildered as to what the relationships between the characters are until about halfway through, at which point the surgeon’s motivations and deeper intents become clear and the film seems to settle and really start to grip. It would be seriously unsporting of me to give away specific plot details, as Almodóvar has taken a lot of trouble to make sure that information is revealed in a particular sequence and by particular means, but it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that the experiments portrayed in the film wouldn’t exactly get the approval of the medical establishment.
Even if the story-telling is slightly on the fiddly side, the film always holds one’s attention by virtue of the confident direction, the beautiful production design, the stylish photography and lighting, and some top drawer performances, particularly from a glowering Antonio Banderas as Ledgard the surgeon and the astonishingly beautiful and clear-skinned Elena Anaya as his mysterious private patient Vera. The script is also highly accomplished – on more than one occasion there are some unexpectedly funny lines of dialogue to be heard during otherwise tense or sober scenes that heighten rather than diffuse the mood. Only the ending seems slightly perfunctory, as though the writer couldn’t quite call up a traditional climax or denouement, but the film doesn’t really suffer. Almodóvar remains one of a kind, and The Skin I Live In is as surprising and affecting as anything I’ve seen by him.
PS: I should add that the medical procedures in the film are depicted tastefully, and there’s nothing very graphic in the way of body horror. I’m horribly squeamish, so if I could cope with it I’m sure you’ll be fine.