Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film marks his first foray into the psychological horror genre, though The Skin I Live In could hardly be considered an experimental piece since he keeps intact so many of his trademark directorial flourishes. It’s just as theatrical, just as colourful, and just as strange as we might expect from Spain’s most celebrated filmmaker.
Antonio Banderas plays Robert, a plastic surgeon intent on developing a new type of skin, one that is resistant to damage or infection. The loss of both his wife and daughter propel him, with increasing levels of obsession, through his work – much of which manifests itself in experiments on Vera (Elena Anaya), the mysterious woman he keeps in his home as both his prisoner and his lover.
Clearly influenced by Franju’s Eyes Without A Face – another tale of a demented plastic surgeon who obsessively strives for perfection in his subject – The Skin I Live in certainly makes a good stab at matching the standard set by its predecessor. Only occasionally does the balance between serious drama and grotesquely comic horror slip: watching Vera being savagely raped by a man dressed in a gold lamé tiger costume, it’s genuinely unclear whether or not we are supposed to be finding this funny. There are other moments, too, when Banderas should probably be getting a laugh – but he’s being so serious that the audience isn’t sure what to do. It’s impossible to say what these are, by the way, without giving away the much-discussed and celebrated twist.
As an unexpected turn of events, it’s a good’un – but occurs only halfway through the film, meaning that there’s still plenty of time left for Almodóvar to do something with it. That, really, is where the film’s strength lies: we’re not simply being led towards an M Night Shyamalan-style throwing back of the curtain; rather, we’re being given an incredibly well-paced story that, at a certain point, gives the already-hooked audience something even bigger to chew on.
Despite its wildly inventive subject matter, there are no excessive stretches of the imagination to be made; no need to suspend our belief beyond its limits. (Although it might be hard to believe that a creature quite as flawlessly beautiful as Elena Anaya really exists.) Indeed, despite all the science-fiction rhetoric posed here, the only aspect of The Skin I Live In that ever really fails to convince is Robert’s disturbed mental state. Unlike Eyes Without A Face, where the surgeon’s madness is already fully established, the use of flashback in this film merely gives the impression that there must be a scene missing somewhere, depicting the he’s-really-lost-it-now breakdown. Banderas conveys Robert’s pain and bereavement well – but not quite well enough to make his grief proportionate to his later actions.
Generally, though, as an exciting and involving Hitchcockian thriller The Skin I Live In does little to disappoint. There may be some sniggers where there should be gasps, and discomfort where there should be shocked amusement – but maybe that’s exactly how Almodóvar wants it, since ambiguity takes centre stage here. With so many questions and uncertainties, it’s very hard not become utterly captivated by The Skin I Live In – and its beguiling, very beautiful sheen only makes it harder.