Film Review: The Skin I Live In

One could surmise that this is some kind of sneaky put-on by Pedro Almodóvar, but his grandiose handling of a very unappetizing tale, rife with weird misogyny, makes it pretentious pulp and nothing more.

Plastic surgeon Dr. Robert Ledgard has a revolutionary new technique of skin-grafting which creates an uproar in his profession. The opportunity to fully experiment with his innovation offers itself when he gets to vengefully perform surgery upon a boy (Jan Cornet) who makes the mistake of sexually attacking Ledgard’s emotionally skittish daughter (Blanca Suárez). Ledgard’s ritzy home becomes a house of mysterious horrors, centered on a strange young woman, Vera (Elena Anaya), who seems to be some sort of weirdly arty prisoner.

After tackling nearly every other genre imaginable, Pedro Almodóvar finally does a Gothic horror movie in The Skin I Live In. He wants to instill a sense of dread and revulsion so badly that it hurts, not only his put-upon characters, but his audience as well, who may find this latest a somewhat grueling chore to sit through. This review is mostly meant as fair warning to the director’s legions of admirers who eagerly anticipate his annual offerings. There are few of the elements which so many have come to associate and love about his films—the sweeping, swooning romance, warmly gracious sense of family, or deliciously campy humor. It’s creepy, all right, but not fun.

The Skin I Live In is a gaudy mash-up of George Franju’s memorably queasy Eyes Without a Face, with other plot strands lifted from various other sources, including Verdi’s opera Il Trovatore. (Azucena, the mad gypsy woman with her tortured ideas of motherhood, has been a continual Almodóvarian inspiration; even that gabby cabdriver in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown bore her name.) But the basic story is a simple one of insane revenge, with the illusion of complexity provided by its intricate, somewhat needless flashback framework, ultimately signifying very little. Whatever revelations occur—once again, “I’m your real Mom!”—are pretty tired and seem like leftover notions from other of the maestro’s films. In all, the film is an infelicitous throwback to that sour, early-1990s Kika/High Heels period of Almodóvar in which his bad-boy sense of outrage took unlucky and rather desperate precedence over truly engaging storytelling.

In the middle of the film, a more familiar Almodóvar type, a hunky brute (Roberto Alamo) in a ridiculous Carnival tiger costume, appears, to basically rape and pillage in Ledgard’s manse. But this flamboyant reminder of the director’s campier past sticks out like a sore thumb amid the overtly grim proceedings, throwing everything risibly out of whack and making it difficult to re-immerse oneself in the proper mood for what follows.

Ledgard‘s sickening revenge on the hapless lad is pretty hard to take, and unfortunately removes whatever sympathy we have for him, but the problem also lies with the casting of Banderas, now looking as elegantly burnished and lean as Cary Grant in his late Hitchcock period, who simply does not have the necessary weight or charismatic madness to be fully compelling. I kept wondering what the more substantial Javier Bardem would have been like in the part, with his mournful aspect of having seen and done all and regretted much of it, and also thought about Colin Clive, who was so ineffably, grippingly crazy in that granddaddy of the genre, Frankenstein.

Anaya, likewise, is no Penélope Cruz and, despite having an intriguingly androgynous look, is largely a blank, although Almodóvar has given her very little to do except be menaced and terrified. Cornet and Suárez are young, dumb and callow, while enigmatic Marisa Paredes, the most interesting character in the movie, is like Garbo doing Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca.

As with all recent Almodóvar films, this is technically suave in the extreme, with glidingly handsome cinematography, seamlessly right editing, Alberto Iglesias’ vertiginous music and dreamily posh production design. All the swell-elegant settings, however, made me rather miss the director’s earliest efforts with their appealingly trashy, thrown-together look and irrepressible desire to give pulpy pleasure, devoid of the pretentious pain exhibited here.