(directed by Pedro Almodóvar, 2011)
When my colleagues and I were discussing films, and I said I wanted to see The Skin I Live In, they said they thought it was a horror film. That worried me: I couldn’t imagine Almodóvar making a horror film. What I found, as it unfolded, was that this was not a horror film (to my relief): it was a typical Almodóvar film wrapped in the guise of a melodramatic thriller.
Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) is a renowned plastic surgeon, who has developed a thicker, more resilient version of human skin based on infusing the structure of the skin with cells from pigs (which are stronger and tougher). His profession’s regulatory body forbids him to experiment further, but we rapidly become aware that what Robert has presented to them is already a finished experiment.
Part of the pleasure of watching the film is that things aren’t by any means explained to you. You see glimpses of Robert’s life and, as the film goes on, it slowly all begins to make sense; or as much sense as Almodóvar ever makes. The facts are these: Robert has a custom-built operating theatre in his palatial country home, where particularly wealthy patients can come for extra discretion. Robert has tragically lost both his wife and daughter, both of whom committed suicide, the former after having been horribly burned in a car crash. So who is Vera, the pretty girl in the bodystocking (Elena Anaya) whom we see doing yoga over the opening credits and who, it rapidly becomes clear, is Robert’s prisoner?
I can’t say any more because much of the film’s appeal comes from slowly unravelling the various plot threads, and realising that Almodóvar is still a berserk and gloriously twisted filmmaker. I agree with a comment I read somewhere, which said that this film is a B-list movie (in its plot) that’s been given the A-list treatment, and I agree with that. Almodóvar’s flamboyance and his tendency to gleefully gallop off into various dark corners of the psyche work well with such a pulp-fiction subject. The acting is generally good. I confess a predisposition to admire Antonio Banderas, who was one of my teenage crushes and who still looks unexpectedly good for a man of 51. Nuanced and elegant, his Robert is surprisingly sympathetic (although by the end, you may find your sympathy beginning to lag). The other characters felt a little more stylised, and thus less empathetic; and to be honest it’s difficult to empathise with Vera until you really know who she is and what she’s doing there.
There are some weak points: I didn’t really understand the point of the episode with Zeca (Roberto Álamo), which promised to open further plot threads about Robert’s background, but in reality did very little except give Vera the chance to leave her prison cell. I’d be interested to read the novel by Thierry Jonquet on which the film is based, to see which elements (if any) were added by Almodóvar himself. If he has faithfully transposed the plot from the novel, then it’s difficult to imagine any other director so suited to make the film. It is like a cross between Pygmalion and Frankenstein, with the same double-edged relationship between creator and creation.