Prized Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar returns to the screen with “The Skin I Live In”, a psychological drama infused with equal parts mystery and body horror. Inspired by Thierry Jonquet’s novel “Tarantula”, what the narrative lacks in structure it makes up for with the director’s signature aesthetic and mesmerizing performance by leading man Antonio Banderas.
In a secluded Toledo estate, renowned plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard (Banderas) runs a private practice out of his personal operating room by day while secretly experimenting on his captive human subject Vera (Elena Anaya) by night. As Robert’s longtime housekeeper Marilia (Marisa Paredes) later explains to Vera, the doctor’s obsession with crafting the perfect synthetic skin is a direct result of his wife’s death 12 years ago. In the aftermath of a near-fatal car accident, Robert saved his wife’s severely burned body from the wreckage, only for her to later throw herself from the bedroom balcony upon seeing her disfigured reflection. Unfortunately the couple’s young daughter Norma (Blanca Suárez) witnessed the suicide, leading to immense emotional instability.
As the Ledgard family’s tragedy unfolds we are introduced to Vicente (Jan Cornet), a young man whose fate becomes intertwined with theirs when, six years prior to the present, he attends the same wedding as Robert and Norma, who has temporarily been released from psychiatric care. Vicente persuades Norma to take a walk, but once they reach the garden his advances abruptly transition from flirtatious to carnal. He flees when Norma screams, and in his hasty exit he accidentally knocks her out. Robert soon comes looking for his daughter, but when she awakens she imagines that he is the rapist. Feeling helpless now that Norma is institutionalized once again, Robert decides to unleash his vengeance upon Vicente.
Past and present continually converge and diverge, weaving a tangled web of relationships that makes each revelation more disturbing than the last. Even for Almodóvar, a man notorious for his unrestrained treatments of desire, passion and identity, “The Skin I Live In” is considerably dark and chilling. And perhaps this is where the story begins to come apart. The crucial plot twist comes relatively late in the film, making everything prior feel aimless and everything after feel like a race to the story’s inevitable conclusion.
“The Skin I Live In” boasts stunning cinematography from frequent collaborator José Luis Alcaine, creating a stark contrast between the picturesque Spanish countryside and the vividly visceral surgical interior of Robert’s home. The other fruitful reunion is, of course, that between the director and Banderas, who featured prominently in a number of Almodóvar’s films before transitioning to Hollywood in the late 1980s. Like Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant in a Hitchcock film, Banderas brings a nuanced performance so engrossing that one cannot fully dislike his character despite his flaws.
Those less familiar with Almodóvar’s work are more likely to be impressed by his newest film. In adapting Jonquet’s story, Almodóvar is adept at creating suspense but ultimately holds on to the story too long before letting the audience in. While “The Skin I Live In” marks a decent foray into the realm of horror for the director, it pales in comparison to his other films, suggesting that perhaps he ought to stick with his own original material.