Pedro Almodóvar reunites with his erstwhile muse Antonio Banderas for ‘The Skin I Live In’ after a gap of twenty-one years to tell the story of Robert Ledgard, a brilliant plastic surgeon who lives alone, apart from a few servants, in a vast mansion which also doubles up as his clinic. The only patient currently in residence is a young woman named Vera (Elena Anaya) who is being held captive in her room with books, an intercom and a dumb waiter her only connection to the outside world. Robert has been using her as a guinea pig for experimental skin grafts, in which he uses illegal “transgenesis” techniques to make her skin harder and more durable. If that wasn’t sinister enough, there seems to be a deeper reason for her being in his house, beyond her role as a test subject, a reason which slowly becomes more and more apparent.
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That’s about as far as I’m willing to go in describing the plot, because the film goes in some surprising directions from that point which are best left unspoiled.
Stylistically, the film is in the mold of the vaguely Hitchcockian works Almodóvar has been making since the late ’90s. His camera glides across the screen like a swan through water, his colours are rich and vibrant, and his command of pacing is second-to-none. Each scene is a masterclass in composition, editing and storytelling; not a shot is wasted, and none of them is anything less than immaculate, proving that Almodóvar remains one of the most technically gifted directors working today.
Whilst the look of the film is in keeping with Almodóvar’s mature works, the plot hearkens back to his early-’90s period, when he combined a fun and bubbly visual style with outrageously campy plots. It’s a pretty perfect marriage of the two very different aspects of his career. Adapted from a novel by Thierry Jonquet, it’s essential too insane movies grafted on to each other. Seriously, if you think the description of the first half sounds nuts, you will not believe the directions that the film takes on the way to its climax, which somehow manages to be both ridiculously over the top and poignantly subdued. Almodóvar maintains the balance between humour and heart beautifully, using small moments of ridiculousness to offset the darkness at the film’s heart.
The actors are keenly attuned to the tricky tone of the film, delivering performances that are by turns playfully silly and deadly serious. Banderas delivers one of his best performances as a man who is alternately sinister and sincere, charming and cruel. His co-star, Elena Anaya is equally captivating as his captive, though her greatest moments come only once the full context of her performance is known. Jan Cornet is also great as a character who is put through his paces by Banderas.
It’s too soon to say whether The Skin I Live In is the best film Pedro Almodóvar has made, though it is a contender, but it’s certainly one of his most fun and easily one of the best of the year. Dark and subversive, pulpy and lurid, it’s a potent cocktail that will be sure to prompt discussion. Just don’t give away the twists, okay?
‘The Skin I Live In’ is out now in selected cinemas
words Edwin Davies