I have to admit two things up front. I am not usually a fan of Pedro Almodóvar, and the descriptions of The Skin I Live In did not lead me to believe I would change my opinion. “A brilliant plastic surgeon, haunted by past tragedies, creates a type of synthetic skin that withstands any kind of damage. His guinea pig: a mysterious and volatile woman who holds the key to his obsession.” Ugh! But since the awards season is upon us, and it is showing up on a lot of lists, I decided to give it a look. And surprise!
First of all, Antonio Banderas is very good in it. He plays the aforementioned “brilliant plastic surgeon,” Robert Ledgard, who lives in a gorgeous mansion in the countryside outside of Toledo (Spain not Ohio.) When we meet him, he is walking through his house, past a number of beautiful paintings of fleshy women, settling finally on a bench before an enormous TV screen, which displays what seems to be another female nude image, but is in fact the surveillance feed of a woman locked in another room in the mansion. And it turns out she has just tried to commit suicide. As Robert rushes to save her, we see that he has a state-of-the-art operating room and research laboratory conveniently downstairs. And the woman, Vera (Elena Anaya), is part of a secret (and highly unethical) research project of his to perfect a flame-proof skin.
Who Vera is and how she got to be the object of his obsession/experimentation is the central mystery of the film. In flashback we see the threads that taken together weave this strangely satisfying story. Robert’s cheating wife is horribly burned in a car crash. His daughter has a fateful meeting with a man named Vincent at a wedding. And though Robert seems well-adjusted, he is in fact a very psychologically damaged man. What is particularly nice about Banderas’s performance is that he plays the mad scientist without acting crazy. He is holding a woman prisoner, experimenting on her, even sharing an opium pipe with her on occasion, but he seems very normal. And when their “relationship” turns romantic, he really seems to care about her.
The story unfolds in a way that keeps you constantly guessing what is going on, not so you are confused, but in a very intelligent manner. At the end with all the puzzle pieces in place, it is all very clear, but getting there, you cannot imagine how it will all come together that might make sense. The Skin I Live In is beautifully shot and the script is really oddly wonderful. I’d recommend this film to anyone who likes a smart psychological drama mystery and is not put off by subtitles. I can see why it is popping up on “Best of the Year” lists. I may just check out a few more Almodóvar movies myself.