In The Skin I Live In Pedro Almodóvar takes his first steps towards horror – a genre which he’s hitherto left unexplored. The result is a tightly controlled gem, a Hitchcockian thriller which touches on familiar themes of identity and gender but also embraces his fondness for melodrama and labyrinthine plots.
Antonio Banderas plays a brilliant Spanish surgeon Doctor Robert Ledgard. He’s handsome, rich and his home is furnished with a state of the art private operating theatre. He gives lectures and is well respected by the scientific community where he advances the case for a radical new type of skin, research into which has been forbidden.
Back in his sumptuously furnished home, he keeps a beautiful woman, Vera, prisoner. She has flawless skin but is covered from head to toe in a tan body stocking and is watched voyeuristically on large screen plasma TVs scattered throughout the house.
Through lengthy flashbacks we discover the relationship between the death of Ledgard’s wife in car crash, the rape and subsequent suicide of his teenage daughter at the hands of a carefree party-goer and how exactly Vera came to be Ledgard’s patient and captive.
It’s confidently directed by Pedro Almodóvar and it’s testament to his skills as a director that he’s made a film with such a grotesquely ludicrous plot actually work. In the hands of a lesser director, The Skin I Live In could have descended into outright farce, but he skilfully manages to pilot it along the thin line between genius and madness, not only crafting a film which is smart, darkly funny and entirely absorbing, but also raises some interesting questions about sexuality and identity.
This is in no small part thanks to Antonio Banderas (working with Pedro Almodovar for the first time in 21 years) who is fantastic as Ledgard. He plays the role so straight that it’s initially hard to tell if he’s a misunderstood anti-hero or medical madman and has a supreme confidence which recalls an Hispanic Cary Grant.
He’s ably supported by Elena Araya, who is so beautiful it’s actually quite eerie – her physical perfection somehow indicates in the context that there must be something wrong. There are touches of playful humour too, including a brilliant scene where his maid’s son breaks into the house wearing a tiger costume – something which is hilarious till things turn very nasty indeed.
Special mention should also go to the beautiful cinematography by regular Almodovar collaborator José Luis Alcaine and the wonderful score by Alberto Iglesias which effectively makes every scene twice as tense. The Skin I Live In is gripping from start to finish – it’s intriguing, beautifully shot and delightfully utterly insane.