Allowing for its perverse twists and turns, The Skin I live in is Pedro Almodóvar’s most accessible film in years, a story of murder, kidnap and substituted desire that returns to some of the themes of his 2004 thriller Bad Education and adds the classic trope of a murderous (plastic) surgeon, favoured subject of several horror films, to the mix.
There’s something particularly creepy and insidious about the portrayal of surgeons on film and in The Skin I live in, Antonio Banderas’ Doctor Ledgard follows in the footsteps of the antagonists of classic plastic surgeon noirs Stolen face (1955) and Eyes without a face (1960), as well as those in more recent psycho sexual films such as Dead Ringers (1988) and even The Human Centipede (2010).
Like most examples of this sub-genre, The Skin I live in is thankfully fairly bloodless, at least on the operating table before characters arm themselves, and for the first half hour comes across as a fairly clinical and classical film in the mould of the first examples of the genre mentioned above. Then a man in a leopard skin ensemble arrives, reminding the audience they’re watching an Almodóvar film after all, and things go from crazy to bizarre to perverse in quick succession.
Antonio Banderas started and defined his career making five great, provocative films with the director in the 1980s and then moved to America, with gradually diminishing results, with practically nothing of note to his name since 2002’s Frida. Here he compliments a universally excellent cast, with a particularly riveting performance from Elena Anaya, also reuniting with the director for the first time since Talk to her in 2002; Anaya plays Ledgard’s pet project, a patient confined ‘for her own safety’, swathed from head to tow in a body stocking to protect her augmented skin.
Like other examples of the genre, this film is ever so slightly Sci-Fi, as the mad doctor has genetically spliced an experimental skin for use on humans that’s fire proof and heals to form invisible scars, but the main thrust of the narrative is about the sins of the past – a reoccurring theme in the director’s work – and as with the earliest examples of crazy plastic scientists on screen, the desire to recreate lost love, using the surgeon’s knife.
Although the revelation of Ledgard’s patient’s identity, while provocative and memorable, strains credulity somewhat, this is a masterful film with one of the best uses of flashback I’ve seen on screen in a long time. Depending on whether viewers are aware of the rules of cinematic logic and narrative construction, the revelation mentioned above will come to the audience at different points, leading to staggered gasps in the seats around one in the cinema, which adds to the frisson of the experience.
Unlike last year’s most schlocky film, The Human Centipede and its banned sequel (for once I’m tempted to agree with the BBFC’s decision), The Skin I live in probably won’t elicit nausea, but Almodovar is an equal opportunities sadist – while there are a couple of rapes of female characters on screen, there are also moments that will make male members of the audience cross their legs, involuntarily, also.
Beautifully shot, with a suitably Bernard Herrman-esque flavour to the score – following as this does in the footsteps of Vertigo to a certain extent – this is a terrific thriller by a director at the top of his game and if Banderas’ adventures in Hollywood have been disappointing of late, hopefully at least his increased international following will bring new audiences to his mentor’s back catalogue.
The Skin I live in is a deserved shoe in for top ten lists of the year, even top fives, and shows that the reunion of Almodóvar and Banderas has been long, long overdue.