The Skin I Live In ✮✮✮1/2
by Glenn Lovell
Gender proves to be more than skin deep in “The Skin I Live In,” another pictorially ravishing, genre-bending satire from Spanish master Pedro Almodóvar.
In this outing, the director of “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” and “All About My Mother” fuses ideas from “Pygmalion” and “Frankenstein” to deliver a blend of mystery, revenge, voyeurism, sex, black comedy and the prototypical mad doctor morality play. You know the one, where someone invariably blurts out, “It’s not nice to play God.”
In spots, “Skin” (in Spanish with English subtitles) reminded me of Georges Franju’s morbid masterpiece, “Eyes without a Face.” Elsewhere, for its tricky flashbacks, Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.”
Yes, it’s a hodge- podge. Yes, it’s over- the-top. But gloriously so. When we tangle/tango with Almodóvar, we know to expect outrageous plot twists, sudden detours into the kinky and melodramatic, and Goya-esque tableaux often drenched in the director’s favorite color ‒ magenta red.
Antonio Banderas, who got his start with Almodóvar almost 30 years ago, returns as Dr. Robert Ledgard, a famed burn specialist who, since losing his wife to a fiery car crash, has retreated to his hacienda clinic to perfect something that would have saved her ‒ synthetic skin. As far as his colleagues in Madrid know, Ledgard’s work is still very much hypothetical. They haven’t seen Vera (Elena Anaya), who has undergone a full body graft and is being kept under lock-and-key. For her own protection? For the doctor’s protection? If his colleagues get wind of his lab/operating theater ‒ where even now he’s growing and applying the super-resilient tissue ‒ they’ll drum him out of the profession. It’s a matter of biogenetic ethics.
Ledgard’s protective mother (Marisa Paredes), who, for security reasons, also happens to be his housekeeper, counsels, “Get rid of her ‒ kill her!”
In typical Almodóvar fashion, here the plot zigs when you expect it to zag. A burly gangster (Roberto Alamo) in a tiger costume (it’s carnival season) comes knocking. He also claims to be the housekeeper’s son. What’s more, he’s the guy who was behind the wheel when Gal, Ledgard’s wife, was so horribly burned. Because the doctor has made Vera over in his dead wife’s image, the gangster thinks she’s Gal and attempts to kidnap here.
Confused? Not surprising. “Skin,” like Almodóvar’s steamy “Bad Education,” crams about three season’ worth of soap-opera revelations into just under two hour running length.
Still, we wonder about the Ledgard’s motives. He’s one cold fish who spends half the time sedating his creation, the other half observing her odalisque poses on a wall-size TV screen? For her part, Vera veers between caged-tiger anger to icy indifference.
Patience, dear viewer. The answers come at the end of Act 2 in a six-years-earlier flashback that adds rape, madness and murder to this already heady brew. It’s a shocker that will remind you of similar plot-reversals in “Vertigo” and De Palma’s “Obsession.” Well, maybe on the surface. Slice deeper and you’ll recognize the audacious signature of Spain’s preeminent satirist, operating here, like his mad doctor, at full tilt.
THE SKIN I LIVE IN ✮✮✮1/2 With Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Jan Cornet, Marisa Paredes. Directed, scripted by Pedro Almodóvar from Therry Jonquet novel. 117 min. Rated R (for nudity, sexual content, violence)