The Skin I Live In could and probably should be categorised as a horror. It’s the only box it really fits into and even then it’s a stretch. It’s a unique film from a unique director, Spanish cinematic legend Pedro Almodóvar, whose every new film is an event for world cinema fans everywhere. And his latest, the intriguingly titled The Skin I Live In, is certainly no exception. And what an event it is, a real sight to behold and an experience to relish in, particularly if you’re a big fan of the director going in.
Loosely working from a novel by Thierry Jonquet, Antonio Banderas plays Robert Ledgard, a brilliant plastic surgeon, haunted by a troubled past, who creates a synthetic skin much tougher than that of a normal human. His guinea pig is a mysterious and equally troubled woman, Vera (Elena Anaya), who he keeps under lock and key and under heavy surveillance.
Of the six Almodóvar’s I’ve seen – All About My Mother, Talk To Her, Bad Education, Volver, Broken Embraces and this – The Skin I Live In sits alongside his magnificent Talk To Her as one of my favourites. A labyrinthine film both in its execution and in the themes it deals with, filled with terrific performances from the likes of Banderas (working with the director for the sixth time) and Anaya which endear you to the characters in spite of some of their highly questionable actions and motives.
It’s also an absolutely gorgeous film to look despite some of the grotesque and despicable events which occur on-screen – this is Almodóvar in some of his most violent and nasty territory but putting it all on display with all the sleekness of a Hollywood production. This creates an unsettling atmosphere for the viewer that only adds to the energy of the film.
Speaking of which, this is one of Almodóvar’s liveliest films, moving along at a surprisingly brisk pace. That’s not to say he doesn’t take care to pay time and attention to the characters and their essential back stories which unfold throughout but overall the film feels vivacious, energetic, alive.
Almodóvar utilises his trademark jumping back and forth in time storytelling technique to great effect here. Since this has, perhaps, one his most straight forward mystery premises – why has Robert created this strange almost impervious skin and what does he want with Vera? – every piece of the puzzle we get from the past allows us gradually to put everything together minute-on-minute. And by the time we get to the film’s centrepiece plot point – which is sure to cause a lot of heated post-film discussion – we feel like we’re the ones who have done all the intellectual heavy lifting instead of the film spoon feeding it to us.
One of the great things about Almodóvar’s films is that even in moments which may suffer from slight tonal problems and the like – which The Skin I Live In unfortunately has here and there – there’s always something interesting going on in other departments. Whether it is the music by Alberto Aglesias or the cinematography by José Luis Alcaine (both of whom aren’t strangers to working with Almodóvar) there’s rarely, if ever, a dull or uninteresting moment to be found.
The film is probably going to be one of those which will split audiences. You’re either going to buy into the over-the-top plot and just run with it as it delves into some pretty dark places (Almodóvar fans shouldn’t be surprised in the slightest by that) or it will repel you in the first 15 minutes. Much like Terrence Malick’s divisive The Tree of Life, I don’t think The Skin I Live In is a film you can have a so-so reaction to – essentially you’ll either love it or hate it. I most definitely fall into the former category as I found it to be a fascinating, bold, unique and utterly compelling piece of European filmmaking. It’s controversy pulled off with elegance and inimitable style.