Great personal tragedies have the uncanny ability to leave a mark on those they touch – but Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In takes that concept to frightening new levels, mixing in healing with horror, pleasure with pain, and medical advancements with mental illness.
The film centers on Antonio Banderas as gifted doctor Robert Ledgard, a reclusive type who does something out of his in-home clinic in a secluded section of Spain. Whatever type of medicine Robert publicly practices, we are not privy to it for some time (a reveal that proves key later in the story), but we are let in on his secrets almost immediately. Ruined by the tragic demises of both his wife and daughter, Robert has withdrawn into a different field of work – crafting a new type of human skin that is, in a sense, unbreakable. The skin is spliced from human skin and pig skin, meant to withstand heat and cold, to heal quickly, to show no signs of violence no matter what is inflicted on it. And while this is a noble (and understandable, given his past losses) pursuit, there’s one small piece of Robert’s plan that sets it apart – he’s lying when he tells the medical community that he needs to test it on human subjects. Because he already has. And she’s locked up in his home.
To speak more on the film’s plot would be disingenuous to the very genius of it, as Almodovar has, on the most basic of levels, crafted one of his finest, most twisted, most bizarre stories yet. Almodovar adapted his screenplay from the novel Tarantula (alternately known as Mygale) by prolific author Thierry Jonquet, and he’s kept the bones of Jonquet’s story, but ramped up with his own brand of humor and horror. The Skin I Live In is black as night, so dark that it very nearly falls straight into camp, too insane to be real, too ludicrous to exist. But Banderas’ performance as Robert, the wickedly precise doctor obsessed in equal parts with the limits of the human form and the boundaries of revenge, is a case study in holding the center and how grounding an outsized character in reality can make even the most feverish dream of a film feel possible.
To star as Vera, Robert’s once unwitting and then curiously yielding test subject, Almodovar has brought back Elena Anaya, who he previously worked with on Talk to Her. Anaya’s performance is, by turns, tough as nails and tantalizingly luminous. She’s a joy to watch on-screen, infectious and irresistible, and it’s no stretch to imagine her as a source of obsession for Robert and for anyone who should encounter her. Anaya has the most complicated and weird role in an admittedly complicated and weird film. Her work here is equally physical and intellectual, and Vera’s very existence slices through the concepts of strength and identity with a precision that echoes Robert’s sure-handed surgeries.
Yet, what’s most interesting about Almodovar’s latest is that he manages to pack the film to the absolute brim with all manner of “big ideas” that are both worthy and able of being the lone center of the project. Different viewers will take different things away from The Skin I Live In, complicated and complex themes that reflect the motivations and interests of moviegoers more than the motivations and interests of Robert or Vera or even Almodovar himself. A brief consensus of other film critics only emphasizes this point – in asking five other writers, each reported to me a different theme or idea as the “central point” of the film. It is it a film about revenge, insanity, identity, intimacy, sexuality, family, fidelity, or privacy? Or is it a film about all of those things (and more), amusingly packaged in a film that’s both deeply unsettling and entirely hilarious thanks to the deft hand of its creator (which, in a roundabout way, speaks to the very nature of the film itself).
But though The Skin I Live In encompasses a vast variety of thematic subjects, not all of them emerge fully formed, and the film is riddled with large leaps in logic, Point B skipped over entirely to get us from Point A to Point C. Almodovar’s second act flashback sequence seeks to seal up some of the cracks, but it’s not entirely able (and, possibly, not entirely willing) to explain even Robert’s broadest actions. But, as ever, Almodovar has crafted memorable (if not wholly knowable) characters that interact in a pitch black fairy tale that is richly compelling and entirely transfixing.
The Upside: One of the darkest films in recent memory, The Skin I Live In is also unbearably, almost inexplicably light and bright; Banderas’ iron-fisted and singularly focused performance keeps the project from slipping into camp territory; and the ultimate reveal of the film is a rare, truly surprising twist.
The Downside: For all its “big ideas” and overarching themes, The Skin I Live In would benefit from deeper exposition to explain some of its most basic mechanics; the second act flashback sequence takes considerable time to settle into itself; and the supposed “caught ya!” moment is commonplace in comparison to the rest of the film.
On the Side: Banderas’ next release, Puss in Boots, will likely be infinitely more fun if moviegoers imagine that it’s Robert voicing the anthropomorphic feline, not the actor himself.