'The Skin I Live In' Turns Almodóvar's Talents Toward Horror

It has been a while since I've seen a movie that elicited exclamations of actual shock from the audience. But, courtesy of a gentleman seated down the aisle from me at Downtown West this weekend, The Skin I Live In did just that. At various points I heard, "Oh my god!," "Jesus Christ!," and assorted wordless Uhs.

I'm pretty sure the "Oh my god!" came with the appearance of the word "vaginoplasty" in the subtitles of the Spanish-language film, but I don't remember which outrages prompted the other outbursts. There are plenty of moments in Pedro Almodóvar's lurid, ludicrous film that could qualify.

The Skin I Live In is a departure of sorts for Almodóvar, arguably Spain's greatest living filmmaker and certainly its most famous. It is a mad scientist movie with dollops of psychodrama, a first foray into horror for a director best known for florid family sagas and explorations of sexual identity. But The Skin I Live In is both of those things as well, to its ultimate detriment. Its weaknesses stem more from the director's familiar obsessions than from any sense that he's working outside his comfort zone.

I can't detail the movie's legitimately nutso plot without giving away its surprises, but here's the set-up: Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), a wealthy, successful surgeon, is developing a new kind of artificial skin. His primary test patient is a young woman named Vera (Elena Anaya), who lives in seemingly enforced isolation at Ledgard's gated estate, overseen by a stern housekeeper (Marisa Paredes). Ledgard keeps Vera under constant surveillance via security cameras, and watches her on a wall-sized monitor in his own bedroom.

So far, so creepy. The echoes of Hitchcock and Cronenberg are clear enough, along with the overriding influence of Georges Franju's 1960 chiller Eyes Without a Face, in which a doctor commits a series of atrocities while trying to perform a face graft for his disfigured daughter. But Almodóvar being Almodóvar, things get only weirder and more perverse from there.

The first sure sign that the film intends to jump the rails with gusto comes with the appearance of a man in a tiger costume, who for various reasons is granted admittance to the doctor's secluded mansion. In no time, the story has added a jewel heist, a rape, and a murder to its plot points—and it's just getting going. The mysteries of who Vera really is, who she looks like, and the connections between the doctor, the housekeeper, and the tiger-suited intruder unspool over the next 90 or so minutes, with the absurdities piling on top of each other until anyone concerned with coherence or even symbolic resonance can only throw up their hands and wait for some kind of resolution.

As crazy as the story gets, its themes of obsessive desire, destructive family dynamics, and the mutability of gender roles are familiar ones for Almodóvar. After all, the last time Banderas appeared in an Almodóvar film—1990's Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!—he played a mental patient who kidnaps an actress to make her fall in love with him. Since then, the director's films have concerned men in love with comatose women (Talk to Her), a family riven by sexual abuse and murder (Volver), and varying degrees of transsexuality (All About My Mother, Bad Education). They freely mix tragedy and comedy, but their real guiding principle is melodrama. Almodóvar is heavily indebted to the classic women's pictures of studio-era Hollywood, and to their soap operatic descendants in Spanish-language telenovelas.

But that disposition is why much of the center section of The Skin I Live In drags. Less interested in suspense than a sort of simmering pathos, Almodóvar lets the tension go out of the story, leaving the audience alternately lulled and incredulous.

All of this looks gorgeous, of course. Cinematographer José Luis Alcaine, a longtime collaborator of Almodóvar's, fills the film with the director's customary saturated primary colors and long, caressing close-ups. And the performers are fine, given the demands the plot makes on them. Anaya in particular is increasingly impressive as her role becomes more and more preposterous.

As a whole, The Skin I Live In is too inventive and well-made to dismiss outright, and much too flawed to admire. It leaves Almodóvar seeming like something of a mad scientist himself, bending his considerable talents and energy to a twisted pursuit that in the end gives him a misshapen and unlovable creature. But one that is still, for better and worse, distinctly his.