Rent It: Almodovar’s “Skin” is a Unique Drama With a Stunning Twist


Today, a very different film from Almodovar, one that left me conflicted upon first viewing at TIFF. After some contemplation, I realized it was a masterpiece. Here is my November 11, 2011, review of “The Skin I Live In.”

The two main characters in Pedro Almodovar’s darkly brilliant psycho-sexual horror yarn “The Skin I Live In” are as mysterious as any duo in film history. Who is this dashing, angry-eyed plastic surgeon lecturing to an appalled crowd about his new synthetic skin creation?

And what about the gorgeous woman in the skin-tight bodysuit doing yoga in the bright, book-strewn room inside the massive house in Spain known as El Cigarral? And what are their relationships with the tense, devoted maid, and the tiger-suited creep who wanders up to the front gate?

You’ll figure out who they are, why they’re here and what’s happening in the laboratory at El Cigarral as “The Skin I Live In” progresses. Considering that Almodovar is behind the camera, you can trust the answers are utterly unique and extraordinarily complex.

Almodovar is a brand at this point, and one of the several foreign directors whose films are guaranteed North American distribution, but “Skin” marks a strange descent into Gothic horror for the man best known for over-the-top, passion-filled drama. The director notes the influence of Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Luis Bunuel and Alfred Hitchcock, but most specifically, the haunting “Eyes Without a Face.”

This genre classic’s character is in evidence from the outset. Antonio Banderas stars as Dr. Robert Ledgard, the aforementioned plastic surgeon/mad scientist. He is a man obsessed with re-creating skin, a task he has toiled at since the fiery car crash death of his wife.

His testing guinea pig, the “woman upstairs,” is Vera, played by Elena Anaya. In the early scenes, the mind races with theories — Is Vera actually Ledgard’s wife? And whoever she is, how did she arrive at El Cigarral? — but I’m hesitant to reveal much about the film’s plot.

It is no spoiler to say there is a twist involved that is damn-near jaw-dropping, one that, upon reflection, seems rather obvious. But I certainly didn’t see it coming, and I would imagine most viewers won’t. Either way, keep it quiet.

Perhaps due to the jarring, gradual reveal, my initial response to “Skin” was guarded, and even a bit disturbed. It first seems different from everything else Almodovar has ever directed — and then not so different at all. You’ll see.

In actuality, it might be one of the most stunningly aware films about gender identity ever made — its final scene is that rarity, a moment that sums up the entire film in two words — and the kind of work that grows in stature the longer it marinates. Like the recent, no-less-complex “Drive,” it seems better and better now than it did when the credits rolled.

It’s a treat to see Banderas back in the wild world of Almodovar. His earliest acting successes were in the filmmaker’s 1980s films, especially “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.”

Here, he is both diabolical and rational, mad-scientist-scary, but oh-so-suave. This is his darkest role in eons, and results in his finest performance in a couple of decades. Coupled with the, ahem, quite different “Puss in Boots,” this looks like the Autumn of Antonio.

But the real star of the film is Anaya. The film pivots on her character and performance. She is more than up to the task, and as striking a heroine as Penelope Cruz in Almodovar’s “Volver.”

For its director, “Skin” is an ambitious dive into different waters, one that retains his standard tropes but drops them in a new type of tale. His previous film, “Broken Embraces,” was a glossy Hitchcock pastiche, while the four that came before it — “Volver,” “Talk to Her,” “Bad Education,” and “All About My Mother” — were among the most serious, and seriously acclaimed, works of his career.

He has resisted the urge to merely repeat, but as always, the color scheme is vivid, the sex scenes charged with lust and occasional discomfort, the sense of humor lovably skewed. It’s Almodovar’s inimitable style of cinema, but transplanted into a new, darker realm. (It is based on a novel by Thierry Jonquet.)

To call “The Skin I Live In” a “horror film” seems limiting. It’s much more than that. One may feel the initial resistance that I did by this often disturbing drama. Yet by disturbing the viewer so dramatically, it elevates itself above genre. It occupies some strange space all its own — one utterly, wonderfully Almodovarian.

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