It feels almost pedestrian to say that Antonio Banderas is impossibly handsome and captivating in a film by Pedro Almodóvar, the Spanish filmmaker with whom the international sex symbol made several cherished movies in the 1980s. But it’s been more than 20 years since their last collaboration, so it must be stated again: Banderas still looks great in a suit, and Almodóvar is still a masterful artist concerned with sex, art and exotic Brazilians.
Now tuck that reassurance into your pocket and get ready for something perversely, invigoratingly different from the pair. The Skin I Live In is a genuinely creepy take on the Mary Shelley Prometheus parable, updated for the postmodern world through yoga, rape and Carnival.
Banderas stars as Dr. Robert Ledgard, a brilliant experimental surgeon who, at the beginning of the film, announces to his peers a breakthrough: He has developed a flame- and insect-resistant human skin, one that’s tougher and more durable than evolution has thus far provided us. He claims to have successfully tested it on rats, to which at least one ethically upstanding fellow expresses outrage. If he only knew the extent of it.
In truth, Robert’s lab is tucked securely inside his palatial Spanish estate. Inside we find a very beautiful, very human lab rat: Vera (Elena Anaya), who wears a protective body stocking at all times and is permitted to watch TV and practice yoga, and is provided with nearly everything via dumbwaiter by the doc’s maid, Marilia (Marisa Paredes), from whom almost no information or expression can be gathered.
It turns out, there are many credible reasons for Marilia’s stoniness, none of which can or should be revealed here. (The less you know about any Almodóvar film going in, the better off you are.) But Robert’s peers were right to be appalled by him – his actions throughout demonstrate a man driven by personal glory and god-like control, not a passion for enlightenment. It’s fitting, then, if not utterly disturbing, that Almodóvar’s screenplay – based on a novel by Thierry Jonquet – employs two distinctive rape scenes to drive the action. As he’s shown in Talk to Her, among others, the filmmaker is strangely effective at locating the fine line between consent and assault and contorting that line like a balloon animal. It’s daring, sure, especially in this film, because Robert is not the rapist in either scenario, but the avenging angel of one and de facto victim of the other. Is there even an actual rape in these scenes? It’s not the most comforting question to be asking as you leave the theater.
There are some minor comforts to be found here, though, particularly the costume and wardrobe work by Jean-Paul Gaultier, Antxón Gómez’s luxurious production design and countless standout performances, especially Anaya in a role as perplexing as it is naked. But the star, as always, is Almodóvar himself, who has struck a more divisive chord with The Skin I Live In than he has in years in order to tell his twisted tale. Worth it.
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