All of our 2011 New York Film Festival coverage is here.
It’s best not knowing anything about Pedro Almodovar’s “The Skin I Live In,” so while I won’t spoil it in the article that follows, there may be no reason to read on other than to know the film has my hearty approval. That said, there is plenty about “The Skin I Live In” that should already be familiar. Steeped in the director’s unconditional love for movies and told with the piecemeal story structure that’s become the signature of his melancholy tales of tortured love in recent years, it’s no surprise to see the film’s lead Vera (Elena Ayana) donning a mask reminiscent of the 1958 cult classic “Fiend Without a Face,” a nod to the mad scientist flick to come with plenty to hide.
Though it comes around to a surprisingly weighty end, “The Skin I Live In” reunites the director with “Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down” star Antonio Banderas and harkens back to the fun and frivolity of their collaborations together in the ‘90s. There’s no doubt a renewed sense of trust between the two has led to Banderas’ deeply disturbing turn as Robert Ledgard, a plastic surgeon who pioneers a burn-resistant skin facsimile. But in this adaptation of Thierry Jonquet’s novel “Mygale,” there’s also sense of danger replacing the empathy of Almodovar’s work from the last decade, a return to the warped humor that fueled his early career with the untamed fringe that resembles the director’s famously tousled hair.
Such split ends are apparent from the early moments of “The Skin I Live In,” since nothing is what it appears to be at first. Vera is held in a spare room we soon learn is part of Ledgard’s mansion, where every morning, she’s served breakfast via a steel dumbwaiter, her orange juice is spiked with a pill without her knowledge by a grey-haired servant (Marisa Paredes), and she grunts along to a morning exercise routine that would seem to have less to do with her perfectly crafted physique than mental preparation for the moment she sees an opportunity to escape. She needn’t worry about her body since that’s the domain of Ledgard, who’s unable to get his skin invention past bioethical concerns of government agencies, yet despite Vera’s convenience as a guinea pig for his off-the-books experimentation, that isn’t the entire reason why she’s been privately imprisoned.
But that beings to reveal itself once Zeca (Roberto Álamo), a man dressed like a tiger who claims to be the son of the housekeeper, breaks into Ledgard’s home and once he makes his way in through the gates, everything else about the surgeon’s intricately constructed life from his compound to his even more closely guarded personal history begins to crumble. Things only get weird and wild from there, flashing back to six years prior to a party that would forever change the purpose of Ledgard’s procedures, resulting in a tailspin of misfortune that coincides with a rededication to his craft that leads to the scientific breakthrough of synthetic skin — the invention instigated by human emotion but ultimately separate from it in the same way the doctor is in life.
The shared tragedy and pursuit of revenge of both Legard and his “patient” Vera, who may never move beyond her status as a lab rat, makes “The Skin I Live In” perhaps the best variation of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” in recent memory, rendering no fewer than four new film versions of the classic (and likely more unreported on) that are currently in the works completely unnecessary. Almodovar can be counted on for creative flourishes that transform the horror of the two’s inextricable ties to one another from the interior to the exterior, relying on lush cinematography from José Luis Alcaine and Alberto Iglesias’ pungent score to do the heavy lifting for the wild ideas at hand while the performances are largely reserved (though it’s clear Banderas hasn’t relished any role as much besides his voice work for Puss in Boots in “Shrek”). Yet all of it is measured with the same precision Ledgard demonstrates as a surgeon.
But for a film that’s about the emotions we bury deep, Almodovar’s ability to let the technical aspects of the film confidently emerge to tell truths about the characters in ways that the characters have become too emotionally hardened to do for themselves seems organic, the grace of movies filling in for the humanity they’ve lost. “The Skin I Live In” is a film where love takes many forms, some of which are perverse, but it’s how the director is guided by his one for cinema that makes his latest feel so alive, even if its characters feel as though they’re slowly marching towards death within.