One of the first scenes in The Skin I Live In involves Antonio Banderas’ character, surgeon Robert Ledgrad, watching a woman he has held captive in an antiseptic room from a surveillance camera. This creepy moment of voyeurism is but the tip of icky iceberg in Pedro Almodovar’s new film. Almodovar, the director behind Volver and Bad Education, has revisited his ever-deepening well of melodrama and skewed femininity for the umpteenth time, and the results are the same — good bordering on great.
Whereas in recent films, Penelope Cruz was the muse for Almodovar, this time the lens is focused on the doe eyes of Elena Anaya. Her character, Vera, is the woman the camera adores, and not just Almodovar’s, but Ledgrad’s, whose surveillance cameras invade her every moment. Ledgrad, a Toledo-based plastic surgeon working to devise a revolutionary human skin treatment, lives with his housekeeper, Marilia (Marisa Paredes), in a mansion cloaked in solitude. The luxurious dwelling would be idyllic to any outsider were it not for one caveat: the human guinea pig he has locked away in a room upstairs. She is fed daily, practices yoga, smokes the doc’s opium, entertains possible conjugal visits with a psycho surgeon, and has conversations with the housekeeper via intercom. When not trying to slit her wrists as a means of escape, she’s wearing a flesh-toned unitard that turns her body into a walking model of Hasbro’s Operation.
An intrusion by an outsider in a carnival outfit sets off a chain of events and flashbacks that begin to explain that there is more to this story than just a mad surgeon, his housekeeper, and his captive. Marilia’s grown son Zeca (Roberto Alamo), dressed as a tiger, unexpectedly pops by the house to hide from the law. During his brief stay, he attacks Vera in one of the film’s more disquieting scenes. We soon learn about Robert’s ever-so-screwed daughter (Blanca Suarez) and Vicente (Jan Cornet), a young man she meets at a lavish party, and how they eventually brought Vera into the doctor’s isolated home. To tell too much more of the plot is to rob the viewer of the film’s sublime surprises.
Like previous films in his canon, Almodovar has chosen to take the love, sex, and betrayal of soap opera and infuse them with elements of mystery and horror. You could call this an art-house horror film, but that mere definition isn’t enough. This movie is more of an extension of films from what is becoming a bygone era. With obvious comparisons to the plotline of French filmmaker Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face pushed aside, The Skin I Live In could also easily fit within the body horror and sexual themes of David Cronenberg’s early work.
And, like Alfred Hitchcock, Almodovar can make beauty disturbing and dangerous, capturing the same noirish spirit. The film’s subject matter tackles gender issues and deception, which are ultimately the undoing of the film’s main characters, much like in Psycho. The brooding soundtrack lends a richer, more romantic tone spiked with elements of majestic violence, and Almodovar’s camera gives his female subjects a shimmering glow that harkens to the special visual attention that Hitch gave to his favorite muse, Grace Kelly, in films like Rear Window and To Catch A Thief.
The aqua and white colors of Vera’s claustrophobic surroundings are visually striking, seeming like an updated version of a silent black-and-white film. Apparently, Almodovar wanted to make his film a black-and-white silent but backed away from that angle when his brother and producer of most his films, Augustin Almodovar, said it would turn off audiences. If only they had known The Artist was going to win an Oscar. Oh well. Woulda, coulda, shoulda.
The Skin I Live In will be screened at the Charleston Film Festival on March 3 at 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. and on March 4 at 4:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Visit terracetheater.org.