Fantastic, fucked-up, and an absolute must-see.
Pedro Almodóvar is one of the world’s most esteemed filmmakers, with films such as Volver, Talk to Her, and All About My Mother under his increasingly versatile belt. Each film he makes veers into new and interesting territory, and The Skin I Live In is no different. All at once a dark comedy, a thriller, ‘a horror without screams or frights’ (as Almodóvar himself called it), a sci-fi intrigue, a tale in the vein of magical realism, a sexual drama, and a family story, The Skin I Live In faces the same problem that Take Shelter did, but overcomes it by being thoroughly compelling and eminently unpredictable, with many twists and turns in its brilliant, if slightly convoluted, storyline.
The film reunites Almodóvar with his one-time stalwart Antonio Banderas, who plays the mysterious Dr. Robert Ledgard, a well-respected surgeon based in Toledo who “presents colleagues with a paper indicating he has been researching the creation of a new and better, stronger skin that considerably bends the boundaries of bioethics. The audience by this point is well aware that confined within his mansion is a young woman, Vera (Elena Anaya), who is being molded — there is no other word for it — to the doctor’s specific requirements. And that would be to largely resemble his late wife, who was burned beyond recognition in a car crash and chose to die rather than to live in such ruined skin.
Vera wears a skin-colored body stocking like a second skin and spends much of the time in a series of yoga positions. These help her to reach an inner core of selfhood the doctor can never touch.
Then a man in a tiger costume (Roberto Alamo) breaks into the house. He’s in tiger skin because it’s Carnival time, but you suspect Almodóvar would have found any excuse to put him into that costume to achieve the image of a tiger on the prowl for Vera.
There is first a sexual and then a violent encounter, which leads to revelations about the relationship between the doctor and the tiger-man, and between the men and Robert’s housekeeper (Marisa Paredes). Then the movie flashes back six years, which introduces two more characters, Robert’s daughter (Blanca Suárez) and a local youth (Jan Cornet) who sets his sights on the young, emotionally fragile woman while he is high on pills at a party.” (Kirk Honeycutt, The Hollywood Reporter).
The details beyond that would spoil everything miserably. Heck, that much might be overdoing it. But to be honest, the last hour turns the film so upside-down, you’ll still be hanging on the edge of your seat.
The film begins with a remarkable piece of scoring by Alberto Iglesias, also introducing us to the coolest, most well-decorated house ever shown on film (in my opinion). Iglesias should get an Academy Award nomination (at least) for this tremendously cool score, which incorporates elements of broad classical symphonies, smooth jazz, and tense modern electronica seamlessly and effectively, not overpowering the film but rather underlying it quite nicely.
As usual the film is shot and edited with beauty and precision by José Luis Alcaine and José Salcedo, respectively. One of the film’s opening shots, of Vera doing yoga, is one of the most gorgeous I’ve seen this year and sets up the visual tone well.
The acting is all-around fantastic, with Banderas, Suarez, Cornet and Anaya notably standing out. Anaya in particular wins points for scoring in a role originally written for Penelope Cruz. You’ve gotta be good to take that slot.
What I’m sure will be underrated about this film is how well-written it is. Every choice, from structure to simple dialogue (“Because I don’t like men?” “Because you don’t like me.”, struck me in particular), is smart and well-thought-out. It builds tension, makes every character sympathetic, and creates layers and depth in a fairly complex story. Almódovar and his brother Augustin‘s screenplay is a loose adaptation of “Mygale”, a novel by Thierry Jonquet, and they certainly put their own spin on it, though it makes me want to read the book.
Of course Almodóvar does a brilliant job directing. Despite the fact that such a fact was implied, I felt it necessary to repeat.
If you don’t go see this film and have the opportunity, I will hunt you down. For if this wasn’t an Oscar nominee in some major categories, I would be surprised and disappointed.