The Skin I Live In

We last saw Antonio Banderas on the screen a year ago in Woody Allen’s mediocre London-set movie, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger in which he played a smooth-talking, suit-wearing museum magnate (think Charles Saatchi but with oodles of Latin charm and swarthy sex appeal). The Skin I Live In sees Banderas stepping out of the lothario mould in which he’s been typecast and into a sort of mad scientist, Victor Frankenstein role. The result is ingenious.

In the wake of his wife’s death, revered plastic surgeon, Robert Ledgard (Banderas) is set on inventing a pain-proof skin of sorts, an armour that might have saved his late wife from the life-altering car crash she died shortly after. While Ledgard is working on his innovation, along for the ride, by no choice of her own, is Vera (Elena Anaya), a living doppelganger of the deceased Mrs. Ledgard. Rather memorably, we first meet Vera “naked” (wearing a figure-hugging body stocking that reveals as much as it covers) in a compromising position (she’s practicing yoga). Held captive by Ledgard in his mansion, Vera is experimented with and monitored closely, her every movement captured by a surveillance camera and absorbed by Ledgard’s private gaze; a look that furtively undresses her further. Under the knife, Vera’s docile body, carved into the shape of Ledgard’s misery, is manipulated in more ways than one. An extended project in mourning, the creation of Vera’s new “skin” becomes an increasing distraction for Ledgard – one that inevitably morphs into obsession – from the real world that is, for him, filled with loss.

Dubbed a modern uptake on the Frankenstein tale, the theme runs all too familiar in The Skin I Live In: man creates monster; monster seeks revenge on man. The story is no less thrilling or captivating, however. Though the plot line seems familiar enough, there’s a twist. As crucial to the outcome of the movie as that in The Sixth Sense, it is a twist so twisted that it must be kept secret and may well surprise even the most perceptive film watcher. Prior to the twist that shall not be untwisted here, the film’s journey is itself audacious as Ledgard and Vera’s peculiar relationship – one fuelled by pain, charged with contempt, lust and obsession – is charted in clever flashbacks shot from alternate perspectives.

Almodóvar’s superb writing and direction thus veers the plot to unprecedented places and never fails to shock. As the film played on, there were ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ in the cinema; audible proof that Almodóvar has still got it as a compelling and ruthless storyteller, not afraid to travel off-course and go where other directors might fall short. Like his other films, The Skin I Live In is Almodóvar through and through. The script deploys the same kind of razor sharp comedy as his last release, Broken Embraces; there is another stellar cast with strong, sexy women (Broken Embraces, Volver and just about every other Penelope Cruz film Almodóvar has directed); there is the theme of family (see All About My Mother); there is voyeurism (Broken Embraces, again); and finally there is a raw energy that can only be described as Almodóvar, that powers the film – a never-dwindling fire of fury and rampant sex – from start to twisted finish.

Though a signature Almodóvar, The Skin I Live In – with a plot that runs as sharp as the blade of a knife and a shock that hits hard as a bullet ­– is without doubt his most experimental and exciting film to date. Here is a proper thriller: electric, daring, stupendous. A shocking experiment with electrifying results.

“La Piel Que Habito”, Spain 2011, 117 minutes, Dir. Pedro Almodóvar, Cast: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Eduard Fernández

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