REVIEW: Almodóvar's The Skin I Live In a Twisty, Sci-Fi Psychosexual Melodrama
The idea of building a person to spec -- especially when that person is some form of ideal woman -- is one that's haunted the movies in variations from My Fair Lady to Vertigo to Bride of Frankenstein to Weird Science. It's an echo of the constructing of a character that results in what you see on screen -- a figure who's the joint creation of an actor, director, writer, makeup artist, dialect coach, costume designer, ad infinitum. But it's also a concept that provides a counter to the typical romance saga in which two people who are perfect for one other come together. Why search for your match when you can make one?
It's fair to say that the human experiment at the heart of The Skin I Live In, Pedro Almodóvar's latest, is motivated by loneliness, if also revenge and mourning. And, naturally, craziness -- lots of craziness. One character, after dumping a load of soap-opera-on-acid exposition in the form of a monologue, notes that the film's protagonist was "born insane." "I've got insanity in my entrails," she adds for good measure. Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas, reuniting with Almodóvar for their first film together in over two decades) may be more than a little off, but he's also a brilliant plastic surgeon who's been working on a synthetic skin that'll resist many of the normal weaknesses -- say, fire -- inherent to the more fragile organ with which we're born. Like any mad scientist worth his salt, his work pushes the boundaries of what his colleagues consider ethical and acceptable, especially his use of transgenesis. Lord knows what they'd say if they saw what he's been up to in his spare time.
The object of Ledgard's fixation and his own personal guinea pig is Vera (a memorable Elena Anaya), a beautiful, lithe woman we first see contorting herself in a yoga stretch in a flesh-colored body stocking and looking like a doll being bent into an impossible angle. It's not an accidental resemblance -- constructed figures litter the background of The Skin I Live In, from the nudes on the walls of Ledgard's house to the mannequins in the window of clothing store in town. And Vera is one of them, though her consent in the matter is obviously questionable -- she's kept in a locked room with a surveillance camera through which Ledgard likes to observe her, though she's also delivered meals, an Alice Munro book and material for her art projects via a dumbwaiter. She doesn't seem completely stable either, with her closet of shredded clothes and bout of self-harm. She could be patient or victim.
I'm reluctant to give away any more details of this story, which contains some wild twists involving how Vera ended up where she did and Ledgard's tragedy-filled backstory. What's distinctive about The Skin I Live In, beyond even these nutso developments, is how reserved it is in terms of filmmaking choices. Aside from his usual bold color schemes, Almodóvar has managed a remarkably restrained telling of what's in essence a sci-fi psychosexual melodrama set in the very near future of 2012 Toledo. He's much quoted as describing the film as "a horror story without screams or frights," and he receives assistance in that regard with straight, unwinking performances from Banderas, Anaya and Marisa Paredes as the housekeeper Marilia. While it's never short on tension, with the addition of disturbing details like the delivery of a container of animal blood to a kitchen table, or the reveal that "Gal," the name Ledgard has given his synthetic skin, is also the name of his late wife, the film approaches its tale as a psychological mystery, unraveling the question of how these people came to be in their strange situation, and prodding at the malleability of the human exterior and interior.
The Skin I Live In approaches its present from two angles -- its first half essentially offering Ledgard's view, the second Vera's, circling around a disruption to the pair's routine caused by a wild animal, or rather a man (Roberto Álamo) in a tiger costume that changes the status quo in the isolated household. It's a deliberately silly prod fitting for such a determinedly oddball narrative, and it speaks to the consistency of the film's tone that what takes place when the tiger comes into the house doesn't seem any more unexpected than what happened before he got there. Ledgard's controlling devotion has created a shared psychosis into which everyone around him seems to have been pulled -- "You and I aren't like anyone," he says to Vera when expresses a wish for the pair of them to live a more normal life. How true that is in the underlying question of the film -- Ledgard has capability to shape someone's outside, but the mind and soul are something else that no surgeon's knife can reach.