Impeccably filmed and laden with intriguing, thorny ideas, The Skin I Live In is nonetheless a glassy, curiously reserved affair comprised of equal parts camp and melodrama. It’s also something else: Pedro Almodóvar has said that his adaptation of Thierry Jonquet’s novel Tarantula, represents his version of a “horror story.” The film treats this generic frame as a hollow shell, within which it spins a complex web of bizarre ideas and motifs.
In his isolated Toledo villa, El Cigarral, a brilliant, stern, and obsessive surgeon, Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), is working on an indestructible, artificial skin. In flashbacks, we learn of the motivating loss in his life: his wife was burned nearly to death in a car accident, and put herself out of her misery while he worked desperately to save her. His daughter was confined to a mental asylum and eventually passed away too, an event Ledgard blames on her being raped. His only company in his mansion is his mother, Marilia (long-time Almodóvar collaborator Marisa Paredes), and Vera (Elena Anaya), whom he keeps behind glass as his experiment.
The Skin I Live In’s storyline is disorienting and difficult to accept, more so because Almodóvar deliberately splinters the structure into an awkward circular gait that keeps us off balance almost until the end. As it transpires, Vera is Ledgard’s victim: he has performed an extreme and terrifying act on her that has completely altered her identity. You could regard the whole film as her journey to discover who she is.
Except that it is not. The Skin I Live In seems actively to discourage our identification with Vera or any other character. All of them are equally dislikeable, even empty. Almodóvar’s direction is exacting, resulting in a picture that feels as clinical as its protagonist. As if to compensate, the director furnishes the set with revealing hints. Some are obvious: Vera is fitted in a cream-coloured yoga suit, like a second skin; Banderas goes about in heavy black clothes that suggest the heaviness of his grief, or perhaps his lack of compassion. And we know that, when a man dressed up in a tiger suit turns up at the front door, this can only be bad news. Other elements are more esoteric: Ledgard’s villa is adorned with Titian’s nudes, and there are allusions to Louise Bourgeois in Vera’s behaviour. The colour red is frequently used, a glossy motif — somehow, however, the blood in the film looks alien.
The contrast between the expressionism of Almodóvar’s set and the coldness of his performers is puzzling. The director reportedly instructed Banderas to look at Alain Delon in Le Cercle Rouge, along with a few other chilly performances. As Ledgard appears so impassive, his turnaround by film’s end might be termed a surprise, if it wasn’t also a function of his obsessiveness, and the reason for Vera’s blankness is shrewdly and gradually revealed — like us, she has no idea who she really is. At the same time, the film seems incurious about Marilla and her resigned complicity in her son’s rather ruthless schemes. “I’ve got insanity in my entrails,” she moans, though it’s not clear what this means to her.
For all its narrative cleverness and fastidious references, The Skin I Live In does yield a remarkably straightforward theme, concerning a man’s inability to love. Ledgard is spurred on to cruelty and desperation by perceived slights against him from the women he cares most about, namely, his wife and daughter (both seen in flashbacks). His response is not love, but intense jealousy, protectiveness, and overbearing possessiveness that lead him, at least partially, to destroying them. Borne out of the doctor’s sadomasochistic conception of revenge, Vera is, in a way, an attempt to create his ideal, perfect woman. It is only when he finally develops compassion and even feel passion for his creation that he meets his downfall. This gives the movie a tragic edge, one that is also horrific.
If it’s difficult to become emotionally invested in The Skin I Live In, it is compellingly performed and certainly unusual. It also revisits Almodóvar’s complex, never quite resolved ideas about gender and power. For these reasons, as much as for its shocking plot turn, it lingers in the mind.