CANNES REVIEW: Almodóvar, Antonio Banderas Reunite For Twisted Skin I Live In
In the late '80s I had a boyfriend who warned me off Pedro Almodóvar's sex-death-religion free-for-all Matador, claiming it was the most perverse movie he'd ever seen. You can bet I eventually saw it, and I love it to this day. (I can't say the same of the boyfriend.) Almodóvar has made both terrific pictures and mediocre ones in the intervening years, but I've long been waiting for him to deliver more of the stylish, twisted pleasures of his earlier movies. The Skin I Live In isn't quite as el sicko as I'd hoped it would be, but the depraved gleam in its eye its nonetheless irresistible.
Antonio Banderas -- appearing in his first Almodóvar movie in more than 20 years -- plays Robert, a plastic surgeon with a secret: He has developed a new kind of artificial skin, which he has perfected on his live-in human guinea pig, a sultry brunette named Vera (the luscious Elena Anaya). Vera spends her days under constant camera surveillance in a special room in Robert's secluded house, her meals sent up via dumbwaiter by Robert's loyal housekeeper, the eagle-eyed Marilia (Almodóvar regular Marisa Paredes). Vera watches TV, but is only allowed to see selected programs; she practices yoga; occasionally, she goes to the closet and tears the clothes there into little strips; the rest of the time she lounges about, quite fetchingly, encased in a skintone bodystocking that's sexier than real skin -- even the feet have individual toes, like '70s toe socks, only more erotic.
What, exactly, is Vera doing there? And why does Robert have an "operating theater" -- the room is marked clearly, like in a '30s movie -- right in his house? He retires there in the evenings to experiment with little patches of "skin" and a scalpel, meticulously cutting patterns that will fit the contours of the human body. Sometimes he spends time in a living room of sorts, where he watches Vera's activities on a big screen -- she looms above him like a captive giantess in a terrarium, lounging on her side as she reads a book, either unaware she's being watched or pretending to be.
Vera's secret past involves a clothing-shop clerk named Vincent (Jan Cornet), an unbalanced teenage girl named Norma (Blanca Suárez) and, possibly, a strange individual who shows up at Robert's estate dressed in a tiger suit (Roberto Álamo). But her most twisted relationship is clearly with Robert: She loves him! She hates him! Meanwhile, he keeps her docile by doping her up, and seems to eye her not with affection or lust but as the perfect specimen.
The Skin I Live In is based, with significant changes, on Thierry Jonquet's stylish and nasty little novel Tarantula; that's a departure for Almodóvar, who usually writes his own scripts from scratch. But the material suits, and inspires, him. The plot, as Almodóvar has reworked it, is a little messy, with lots of twists, turns and coincidental family secrets. And in stretches, it relies a little too much on characters' expository dialogue. But when it comes to the movie's visuals, Almodóvar -- working, as he often has in the past, with cinematographer José Luis Alcaine -- is in his element. The picture is rendered in crisp, flower-garden colors, and there are some glorious shots, particularly at the beginning, that render Vera's body as if it were a glorious desert landscape, all sand-toned hills and valleys.
The movie's erotic charge isn't the straight-up kind; it's really more of a queasy frisson, with several sequences involving mildly icky (but not particularly graphic) surgical procedures. Almodóvar is no longer, of course, the young bad boy, but The Skin I Live In proves he's still got lots of disreputability -- and craziness -- in him. It's a pleasure to see Banderas in an Almodóvar film once again: As Robert, his grim little half-smile is sexy in a "Come here! Get away from me!" way. He's fully in tune with the picture's sleek, seductive wickedness. And you know Paredes is not a woman to be messed with when, her eyes ablaze, she declares, "I've got insanity in my entrails!" A little Alka-Seltzer would probably take care of that. But why would you want to?