The Skin I Live In

Written by:
Elgy Gillespie
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Antonio Banderas and Elena Anaya in “The Skin I Live In”
Photo from Sony Pictures Classics

The Skin I Live In

Directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Written by Pedro Almodóvar with Agustin Almodóvar, based on Thierry Jonquet’s novel “Mygale”
Starring Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes, Jan Cornet, Roberto Alamo, Eduard Fernandez, Blanca Suarez, Susi Sanchez, Bárbara Lennie
MPAA Rating: R
Run time: 117 minutes

Another Almodóvar, another quandary…

He’s like the mad uncle you really dig, for the laughs and the ride, but dread accompanying in public because his desire to shock makes him such a loose cannon.

And this is Pedro Noir at his noir-iest so far! He even originally wanted to make his dark thriller as a silent movie in black and white, or so he says.

And this time he’s teasing us more by referencing every director he ever loved from Kubrick (“A Clockwork Orange”) to Hitchcock, and the baron of blood himself, David Cronenberg. There are many aspects to his alchemy.

Almodóvar’s auteur esthetic is like nobody else’s. Channeling scraps from Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” he’s stitched a tale of obsession and revenge about a cosmetic surgeon, Robert Ledgard, beautifully underplayed by Antonio Banderas as the doctor whose wife’s incinerated skin and death causes him to invent an artificial skin in order to recreate his love, and at the same time avenge himself in this twisted, twisting tale of damage and obsession.

The horror is ascetic rather than grisly, with artificial skin a constant touchstone. The skin of “The Skin I Live In” is highly polished even for Almodóvar. Design (wardrobe by Paco Delgado, collaborating with Jean-Paul Gaultier, no less), production and original music (Alberto Iglesias) values almost outstrip those in his “Talk to Her” and “Bad Education,” which is saying something, though it may take time for viewers to warm to this tale. (See video preview, below.)

It took “Vertigo” decades, too. But face and skin transplants are becoming more common, as are ways of spraying new skin on burn victims, so perhaps this plot may not be as metaphysical and surreal as first it seems.

And this eye candy is contrasted with an appearance by ear-seducing Afro-Spanish temptress Concha Buika singing at a party. Just as you’ll still remember Caetano Veloso’s relatively brief “Cucurrucucú Paloma” in “Talk to Her,” you’ll remember Buika’s voice. Destined to soar like a comet as the next Cesária Évora, hers has an unusual catch in it, a kind of desperate scraped edge, a little like the fado singer Ana Moura’s cries of anguish. She perfectly evokes the obsessive passion at the heart of Almodóvar’s 19th movie.

Ledgard’s wife became a hideous burn victim after an accident involving a loutish lover, and his daughter has been traumatized. He lives with his sinister housekeeper, and has been keeping a beautiful mystery woman as his surgical guinea pig, studying her every breath upon a vast kitchen screen. Her name is Vera (Elena Anaya), and she wears a flesh-colored bodystocking that will soon be all the rage on Rodeo Drive.

There’s something exquisite and restrained about the gore, and the pacing of the revelations, and also about the underplaying of Banderas.

Almodóvar and his favorite cinematographer José Luis Alcaine tell the story hauntingly because they enjoy that Hispanic sense of surreal and absurd narrative and have a palette of extraordinary reds and exquisite interiors to service it, along with Banderas as you’ve never seen him.

Like Hitchcock, this director understands the potency of music and also the pungency of exactly placed color inside a narrative, with everything within that servicing the tale.

And just as Almodóvar got us to see Penelope Cruz anew in “Volver,” we see Banderas as Ledgard with fresh eyes, and his performance is faultless.

When did Banderas become the most chillingly erotic man on earth? I just mention it because he’s George Clooney’s evil twin here; the voice of “Puss in Boots” is nowhere in the picture from the second he appears. He’s oddly moving in the scene where he tries to make love to his recreated love, too.

The considerable Rubik’s Cube puzzle of this picture’s financing was stitched together too — from Almodóvar’s own province of La Mancha, but also Galicia and other neighboring states. It’s a hard act to repeat in the current economic freefall, and I think his next film may have to be the black and white silent movie.

And here it’s in the hands of a lover.


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