When a person does something particularly cruel or despicable, he or she is often asked, usually rhetorically, “How do you live with yourself?” Spanish director Pedro Almodovar’s new film The Skin I Live In takes that question and expounds upon it to an extreme degree. Almodovar, whose previous work includes All About My Mother and Bad Education, makes his first foray into the thriller (and, arguably, horror) genre with The Skin I Live In. Like his previous films, Almodovar both shocks and entertains the audience while weaving an unpredictable story set in a world unfamiliar to most people.
Almodovar’s film works, in part, because so much of what transpires comes as a surprise to the viewer so, out of respect to the film and its director, that idea will be upheld here.
Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) is a brilliant and respected plastic surgeon who is regarded as one of the best in his field. At a conference with his peers, he addresses his research into a synthetic skin which can withstand any type of damage. His research includes not the mice he claims, but a woman named Vera (Elena Anaya) whom he has kept imprisoned in his country estate for several years. Vera is seen at all times to be wearing a skin tone body suit which accentuates her physical perfection, something Robert seems to enjoy viewing as he spies on her from his bedroom.
Vera’s life in confinement has an almost absurd mundaneness to it as she interacts with Robert’s housekeeper, Marilia (Marisa Paredes), via intercom to request art supplies or clothing. Her food is delivered by a dumb waiter and she fills her days sculpting small figurines and practicing yoga. We find out that Robert’s preoccupation with developing a viable skin substitute relates to his past tragedies involving his wife and daughter and that somehow Vera is at the center of the mystery.
In every way, The Skin I Live In is unapologetic, from the characters’ actions to the film’s brutal revelations and conclusion. Almodovar uses the story, based on the novel Mygale (“Tarantula”) by Thierry Jonquet, to examine how obsession with revenge can either drive a person insane or serve as justification for the actions they take. Sometimes both. Robert is so fueled with hate that his actions seem like those of a madman, but he carries them out with lucidity and patience making what he does that much more disturbing.
Almodovar sets the story in motion with a straightforward, linear plot that lulls the viewer into a false sense of familiarity. Abruptly, though, he changes the course of the film which then takes on an entirely new tone and style of storytelling. For most directors, this would be an utter disaster, but for a master filmmaker like Almodovar it is just another way to throw the audience off balance and prevent them from experiencing the story in any way other than his own.
Banderas is unsettlingly good in his role. He makes Robert a cold, unrelenting villain with whom we somehow still manage to sympathize. As Vera, Anaya is absolutely terrific. Earlier this year, she appeared in the little seen Spanish film Point Blank and made a huge impression in a very small amount screen time. In The Skin I Live In, she gives an incredibly brave performance, giving life to one of the most complex and conflicted characters in recent memory.
Love it or hate it, The Skin I Live In will stick with you long after the film ends. One gets the sense that this is exactly what Almodovar intended it to do.
The film is rated R and runs 117 minutes.