*Have done my best to avoid spoilers. No easy task with this movie – for realz.
One of the central characters of this film is skin. It’s featured prominently in every scene, with close-ups that reveal every line and pore, or in the case of the beautiful Vera (Elena Anaya), a complexion that is almost inhumanly perfect. Her skin is so stunning it shames the rest of us for not having our dermatologist on speed dial. But we quickly learn that her unblemished, milky skin looks a little TOO perfect for good reason. And the reason is the mad scientist, Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonia Banderas), the brilliant plastic surgeon who keeps her locked up in his incredible mansion. She is both his prisoner and his love. She makes for a very beautiful and adoring lab rat.
Skin. La piel. Pedro Almodovar‘s latest work, The Skin I Live In, would be nothing without it. The weathered, dark, handsome Ledgard is a stark contrast to Vera’s porcelain-like face and body, so perfect that she wears a full body suit for protection, a “second skin” prescribed to her by her somewhat over-attentive doctor.
Scars, bullet wounds, knife punctures, and even tattoos and wrinkles are jarring and unwelcome for the viewer after setting site on Vera. Tattoos are ubiquitous these days, and with a small, understated one, most of us wouldn’t glance twice. But the black, inky scrawl tattooed on the dark skin of the songstress during the party scene is the first we see in the film and therefore captivating in that context. The faceless nudes in the artwork on Dr. Ledgard’s wall carry a darker, more sinister significance as the story develops. The mass of chalky, mutilated flesh of a severe burn victim is the root of all the films problems.
Sure, it’s what’s inside that counts, but this suspense thriller proves that the outside counts for an awful lot, too. Maintaining inner peace and mental health is hard to do when we don’t recognize our own face. Vera uses yoga and meditation to stay centered and to protect her inner self. With Dr. Plastic playing experiment-of-the-week on her, she has only the deepest parts of herself to remind her where she came from. By the end of the film, her pristine face has lost some of its allure because the viewer is too aware of the troubled soul beneath it.
This is not the first time Almodovar’s collaborated with Banderas, and hopefully it won’t be the last because this pair make Johnny Depp and Tim Burton look like Ernie and Burt. The last time these two teamed up was the 1990 film Tie me up! Tie me down! that explores the same Stockholm Syndrome issues of love and imprisonment that we see in The Skin I Live In.
Almodovar tackles age-old themes, including identity, gender, guilt, revenge and voyeurism. But the execution feels somehow different, giving the audience a fresh and twisted viewpoint. He turns the rape revenge genre upside down, casts a jarring perspective on sexuality and identity, and fuses realism and sci-fi without skimping on emotional intensity.
Much of the style choices and plot devices seem straight out of a Hitchcock movie – the pace and the arc, the wide-eyed close-ups and claustrophobic spaces, not to mention the many hidden revolvers, in drawers, in purses, and under bedsheets. He uses these classic tropes but he’s made them his own. The gift of the auteur.