Proof that Pedro Almodóvar’s reputation as provocateur is secure came after a recent screening of “The Skin I Live In,” his new film starring Antonio Banderas as an obsessed plastic surgeon. As I was filing out another critic came to me and said, “Wow, that was weird, even for an Almodóvar film.” It’s a skin flick (literally) about Oedipal revenge, sex and plastic surgery.
Based on Thierry Jonquet’s novel “Mygale,” Banderas plays Robert Ledgard a brilliant plastic surgeon with a troubled life. His luxurious mansion house not only an operating room, and recovery facility, but a dark secret. Hidden from the world is Vera (Elena Anaya), a patient—or is she a prisoner?—who acts as a guinea pig for the doctor’s experiments. He’s trying to perfect a new kind of skin resistant to burns and bites. There’d be no more malaria, no more burn victims. Trouble is, his experiments are completely illegal.
There’s more. Lots more, but part of the please of “The Skin I Live In” is allowing Almodóvar to reveal the story at his own pace. It’s part “Frankenstein (with better skin) or Plastic Surgeons Gone Wild, but all Almodóvar. It’s audacious, diabolical, unexpected and possibly the kind of film Hitchcock might have made, but only in his wildest imagination.
Banderas, in his first pairing with the director in twenty years, is a revelation. His US work, while often successful, is dwarfed by his performance here. Working with Almodóvar and in his native tongue brings out nuances often missing from his English films. It’s an understated but powerful performance that conveys the doctor’s evil compulsions without ever dipping into the Central Casting mad scientist box of personality tics.
He leads the strong cast, including the impossibly beautiful Elena Anaya as Vera and Marisa Paredes as Marilia, the exposition giving housekeeper.
This may not be Almodóvar’s strongest film—it lacks some of the self aware humor of his early efforts and requires massive leaps of faith from the audience—but the man is a master. What it lacks in strong story telling it makes up for in his strong sense of style and audaciousness.