Always outrageous but usually entertaining and smart, filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar stumbles badly with his latest, The Skin I Live In. It’s not just that the plot points glorify in inhumanity and grotesqueries, but that the director (and, with Thierry Jonquet, co-scripter) seems to have mistaken such for sass, wit, even sexiness. It’s now more than an hour since I saw Skin, and the feeling of pure nausea that settled into my gut somewhere in the first 15 minutes of the movie has yet to dissipate.
Antonio Banderas, who got his start in far better Almodóvar films like Tie Me Up Tie Me Down, plays a narcissistic plastic surgeon, Dr. Robert Ledgard, who is obsessed with developing a kind of skin that is not only indestructible, but is precisely what may have saved his unfaithful wife after a horrific car crash left her all but dead. Confused? Seems the good doctor can’t save himself from his Superman tendencies, so despite the poor woman’s excruciating pain and monster’s looks, he tries to bring her back with disastrous consequences. After the death of his mentally unbalanced daughter, Dr. Robert’s quest takes a decidedly perverse turn, involving his old housekeeper Marilia (Marisa Paredes), a fair amount of pig’s blood, and an unwitting, and very unlucky, subject.
As can be expected, the movie is highly stylized, all glass and chrome hard edges, with little dabs of saturated color here and there, mostly vials of blood and an occasional bright garment, like turquoise scrubs or a hot pink jacket. Here, the cheeriness of the hues signals very, very bad things are about to happen. Huge odalisques look down from the walls of Dr. Robert’s house, where a latex-type-suited woman plays at yoga and sculpting from behind a locked door. Ledgard stares at her via hidden cameras; large expanses of the story involve this sort of voyeurism, as the director teases out the question of what makes us who we are—is it how we were born, or what we become, and what effect does the observer have on these personae?
Good questions, indeed, ones that may have made interesting cinema. However, Almodóvar prefers to nudge us with outrageous scenes that may be taunting his audience for its love of violence. Certainly, as the endlessly looping scenes link flashbacks to the present, it’s not so much artistic courage one is thinking, but slick depravity. The Frankenstein correlations are there, to be sure, but The Skin I Live In lacks a compelling narrative. And despite the shock factor, the film is a sluggish enterprise, and this takes in Banderas’ monotonous turn. If there is anything to recommend the movie, it would be the enigmatic and haunting performance of the very beautiful Elena Anaya (as test subject Vera), and strong supporting work from Paredes as a mommy dearest far more horrifying than Christina Crawford could have imagined. Be that as it may, but movies like The Skin should come not just with a stronger disclaimer, but also a barf bag.