The Skin I Live In
Pedro Almodóvar trades campy for creepy in fleshed-out horror flick
The Skin I Live In
Directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Jan Cornet
Pay attention to the background details of the psychosexual Spanish drama The Skin I Live In, and you might recognize it as the work of camp provocateur Pedro Almodóvar (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Kika, The Flower of My Secret, High Heels, All About My Mother, Talk to Her, Volver). There are the occasional shocks of color amid the formally composed shots. There are the pop-art-bordering-on-op-art backdrops. There’s the obsession with bold fashion (delivered, this time, with the assistance of Jean Paul Gaultier). And there is, of course, the kinky, pansexual atmosphere. Get distracted by the overall story, however, and you’ll be forgiven for mistaking it for the work of medical revenge and body horror specialist David Cronenberg (The Brood, Videodrome, The Fly, Dead Ringers).
Longtime Almodóvar collaborator Antonio Banderas stars as Dr. Robert Ledgard, a looney plastic surgeon obsessed with ... well, a whole lotta messed-up stuff. While our demented doc might not be as sick a surgeon as good ol’ Dr. Heiter from The Human Centipede, the two would almost certainly be fast Facebook friends. In his isolated country estate / laboratory, Dr. Ledgard keeps a mysterious young patient/prisoner named Vera Cruz (the arrestingly attractive Elena Anaya from Sex and Lucia) under lock and key. Every night, he comes home and watches her on a closed circuit, high-definition television while she reclines like an odalisque in her modernist prison cell. He pores over every inch of her flawless flesh, searching for imperfections. Vera is the unwilling guinea pig in Dr. Ledgard’s grand experiment. His goal: To create the perfect, synthetic human skin—one that is quick-healing, impervious to insect bites, resistant to burns. With Vera, a once-disfigured burn victim, it would seem he has succeeded. But who is this gorgeous guinea pig? What has brought her to this toxic medical relationship with Dr. Ledgard? And, while we’re asking, why did he make her look exactly like his dead wife?
Before answering those nagging questions, The Skin I Live In (based on French novelist Thierry Jonquet’s f’ed-up crime novel Tarantula) skips back in time six years to give us a seemingly tangential story. In this extended flashback, we see Dr. Ledgard’s unstable reaction to his wife’s untimely death. More importantly, we witness his elaborate, Saw-like revenge plot against a young man (Jan Cornet) Ledgard believes is responsible for his daughter’s rape and subsequent suicide. At first, this might seem like extraneous information. Still, it’s hard not to watch with sick fascination what inspired Dr. Ledgard to put the “mad” in mad scientist. By the time our flashback ends, our divergent storylines have been tied up in a tight suture, and we’re able to move forward, secure in some very uncomfortable knowledge.
Though it shies away from overt blood and gore, The Skin I Live In is a mightily discomfiting horror film. Almodóvar is clearly, consciously mirroring Georges Franju’s much-lauded 1960 horror drama Eyes Without a Face—not to mention less lofty medical shockers like The Brain That Wouldn’t Die. While spinning off on his own sick-and-twisted path, Almodóvar still manages to capture much of the same beautiful-yet-disturbing atmosphere as Franju’s classic. Pay attention and you’ll find plenty of Almodóvar-style oddness on display (one villainous invader to Ledgard’s abode spends the entire movie dressed in a ridiculous tiger costume). Just don’t expect a lot of campy humor to come along to alleviate the increasingly dark mood.
Though it stands as the odd man out in Almodóvar’s mostly uniform résumé, The Skin I Live In is still a recognizable product of the filmmaker—from its giddy polymorphous perversity to its “womanhood is made for suffering” message. At times, the story starts to feel too fractured to ever reassemble properly (futuristic medical experiments, men in tiger suits and a revenge-for-rape plot?), but Almodóvar pulls it off elegantly. The only major complaint I can form is with the ending, which wraps up on far too quiet a grace note for a film that builds to such voyeuristic, melodramatic and queasy-horrific heights. Still, this is one art-house horror that will work its way under your skin and stay there for some time to come.