Throughout his career, Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar has always been fascinated with gender and identity. His films often explore the differences between the outer-self—superficial, malleable—and the inner-self—the core of true human existence. His masterpiece, All About My Mother, exalted men who weren’t afraid to look like women—regardless of political or societal prejudice. The Skin I Live In, a macabre but elegant work of Spanish cinema, is the director’s most perverse and disturbing rumination yet.
With echoes of Vertigo, The Crying Game, and Frankenstein reverberating through the halls and rooms of a mad dermatologist’s isolated abode (a sumptuous Spanish villa with a private clinic), the film is like a chamber drama dreamt up by David Cronenberg. The main inhabitant is Antonio Banderas’ Robert Ledgard, a scientist looking to perfect face transplants on burn victims. His Igor is the matronly housekeeper Marilia (Marisa Paredes); the Monster is a ruby lipped, snow-white beauty named Vera (Elena Anaya). Adorning a skin-tight unitard, she’s a captive in a studio apartment at the top of the stairs.
Robert’s lair is a museum of classical and abstract portraits: nude women’s unblemished flesh, they are paragons of human formal excellence. Flat screen surveillance monitors hang among them, framing Robert’s “creation” like real-life, high-tech tableaus. Vera, whose room looks like four white halls of blank canvass, is referred to as a patient, but is less a science experiment than a twisted work of art. In many ways, the film is Almodovar’s commentary on art itself—synthetic and hand-made, Man’s feeble attempt at the divine. Stylistically, Almodovar works with longing orchestral crescendos and a miscellany of strategically placed props, chosen wardrobe articles and applied make-up touches, bold and variant hues—think the matador’s cloak or Carmen’s blouse, the grandeur of opera made cinematic.While he doesn’t possess Polanksi or Hitchcock’s gift for tension, Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In does work in mysterious ways. In flashback, the film’s many questions get not-so-pleasant answers. Why does Vera look so much like Robert’s deceased wife? How did one night several years ago at a wedding put the whole chain of events into motion? And, most curiously, who (or what) is Vera? Part revenge saga, part mad-scientist horror movie, and part tragic love story, The Skin I Live In is about identity, sexuality, possession, obsession, fate’s cruel irony, and science’s ersatz aesthetics. Most importantly, it forces each viewer to gaze nakedly at his own perception of beauty. The film is ultimately about the masks we all wear, and the ones we oh so artfully (or perhaps—gulp—surgically) force onto others.