Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) is a respected Parisian plastic surgeon who lost his wife in a tragic fire years ago. Since her death, he has become obsessed with creating an artificial super skin that would be stronger than real skin and fire-proof. Aiding the doctor is his lifelong housekeeper and assistant, Mariela (Marisa Paredese), and a mysterious beauty, Vera (Elena Anaya), who Robert keeps under lock and key, in “The Skin I Live In.”
Filmmaker Almodovar has always marched to his own music and, with “The Skin I Live In,” Pedro done walked off the map. This is a strange Frankenstein-esque tale about revenge, but this is not apparent as the story, sometimes incomprehensibly, jumps back and forth in time. Once I got past this distraction, I realized that I was watching what I generally loathe – a sick horror film (though stylishly shot by Jose Luis Alcaine). But, I do not want give away the sordid plot just in case this is your cup of tea. It is, though, a classy looking piece of work but looks are not everything.
Antonio Banderas, who last made a film with Almodovar in 1990 (“Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!”), is lifeless as the plastic surgeon obsessed with Vera and providing her with “the best skin in the world.” Vera, played by Elena Anaya, is a beauty and Almodovar and cinematographer Alcaine photograph her with loving care, flawless skin and gorgeous lighting. The artistry of “The Skin I Live In” does not make up for the sleazy story. Long time Almodovar actress Marisa Paredes, as the doctor’s assistant and co-conspirator, harbors her own dirty secrets, but this just adds to the film’s sordid nature.
There is a flow to the “now” part of “The Skin I Live In.” At first, we are presented with a weird tableau of the doctor’s double life. In his professional one, he is trying to do something for mankind with his remarkable artificial skin. His personal life, though, is one of revenge, the start of which is revealed in flashback and involves Robert’s daughter. As the story, and Robert’s motivations and operations, becomes clear, I felt a wave of disgust pass over me and the sickness of the vengeance made me think about the kind of horror films I loathe and avoid. This is one of them.
I have always respected, if not always liked, the works of Almodovar and I am disappointed in him for making a film like “The Skin I Live In.” It left a sour taste in my mouth and feeling like I needed a shower afterward. I give it a C-.
Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas, "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger") is a doctor on the cutting edge of facial transplants for burn victims, but when he returns home, he hides a secret project and a secret subject only his housekeeper Marilia (Marisa Paredes, "All About My Mother") knows about. Ledgard is tormented between the wife of his past and the daughter of his present, but just who does he have under lock and key in "The Skin I Live In."
In his adaptation of Thierry Jonquet's novel, Pedro Almodóvar ("Talk to Her," "Volver") returns to themes that have informed his films for years - sexual identity and obsession, drug use, motherhood, even kidnapping and bondage - but this time around what he's brought to the screen is a jumbled mess with unsympathetic characters acting with unclear motivation. As always, the production is visually extravagant (production design by Antxón Gómez, "Broken Embraces;" art direction by Carlos Bodelón and costume design by Paco Delgado) and Alberto Iglesias's ("Che," "Broken Embraces") swirling percussive score, punctuated first by horns then violins, adds to the offbeat environment. Perhaps most impressive of all is how José Luis Alcaine, the director of photography, has lit the 'new' skin of Ledgard's unwilling guinea pig, given the identify of Vera Cruz (Elena Anaya, "Cairo Time," "Point Blank") by her captor. Anaya may have close to perfect skin, but on the screen, especially against the normal epidermis of Banderas, it's flawlessly creamy and poreless.
The film has elements of Hitchcock and, most of all, George Franju's far, far superior "Eyes Without a Face," but "The Skin I Live In" is structurally rickety. It begins every so slightly in the future, Toledo of 2012, at Ledgard's gated El Cigarral, with Vera performing yoga in a flesh colored body stocking, monitored over closed circuit by Marilia in Ledgard's absence. The walls of Vera's space appear to be covered in an art graffiti b&w wallpaper until one looks closely and sees repeated scrawls of 'Respiro Respiro Respiro' ('I breathe'), ticked countdowns and dates. As it turns out, Vera is not the only person who's identity is in question. one day, a man dressed as a tiger (Roberto Álamo) appears at the security camera. Marilia tells him to go away until he moons her, revealing a distinctive mark. She lets him in and Ledgard's hermetic experiment is thrown into disarray by two people who are not what we've been led to believe (nor do they act in a manner one would expect once one learns the connections).
Almodóvar jumps around time lines, going backwards, forwards and sideways, revealing back story and, finally, Vera's roots. It's all supposed to be shocking, but offputting might be more correct as Ledgard's obsession with skin covers a complete disregard for the heart. It's ironic that this is Banderas's first film with Almodóvar since "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!" twenty years ago - another film in which he kept a woman enslaved until she fell in love with him - but here the kinks aren't emotionally true and Banderas himself (ironically showing his age) is an automaton. The director ends his film with a fade to black that seems more like a running out of steam. The filmmaker doesn't always burn the house down, but never have I cared less or actively disliked one of his movies until now.
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