Pedro Almodovar builds a queasy, unsettling thriller with equal parts melodrama and horror in this modern day mad scientist flick starring Antonio Banderas and Elena Anaya. The Skin I Live In holds the distinction of being one of the few movies I’ve seen that is genuinely repulsive while not relying on an excess of gore or freely flowing bodily fluids. And I kinda dig it.
The overwhelming effect of the film derives from some unexpected and vital plot twists, so in the interest of preserving the mysteries of the movie for those who wish to be surprised, I’m going to keep this review relatively short. Antonio Banderas plays a sociopathic plastic surgeon whose specialty lies in the field of skin grafts. Elena Anaya, an actress so stunningly beautiful that she looks as if she were manufactured in a laboratory, plays his muse.
From the beginning of the movie, we see that the good surgeon keeps his patient barred from human contact; food and necessaries are passed to her through a dumbwaiter. He watches her from an adjoining room through a direct feed camera and only physically enters her presence in order to dope her up on opium or operate on her. The operations consist of grafting onto the woman a prototypical skin that is resistant to fire.
Almodovar, however, isn’t retreading the story of the Pygmalion, where the artist builds his true love from inanimate matter, but that of Frankenstein and his monster. This is not a love story with a science fiction twist. The surgeon’s depravity becomes apparent midway through the flick; complete humiliation and sexual domination of his captive drive him and little else. The subject matter will likely leave several viewers wishing they could scrub their brains of the experience afterwards.
Yet despite the deeply disturbing nature of the The Skin I Live In, Almodovar has crafted a film that is superficially gorgeous. Almodovar shares the same instincts as a painter or a photographer; almost any still taken from this movie could be framed and placed on display. Each scene teems with sharp, vibrant colors. The movement of the camera is graceful and measured. Every frame is seemingly packed with visual detail that reveals something about the characters. Banderas and Anaya give stellar performances.
The movie only suffers from the twisted subject matter and from a screenplay that is needlessly complex and occasionally convoluted. Without giving anything away, it’s hard to get past just how bizarre the surgeon’s scheme is. The film’s intrinsic freakishness ends up being both a flaw and exactly what makes it so damn memorable. Ultimately, I liked this film because it was obviously written and directed by a complete madman. With this movie Almodovar shows that unbridled insanity can be an asset. The Skin I Live In frequently veers towards the grotesque and the melodramatic, but it is never boring.