There is a scene in The Skin I Live In, the latest film from celebrated Spanish director Pedro Almodovar (Volver, Talk to Her) where a man in a silken tiger costume tries to rape a woman wearing a flesh-colored body suit. And as it turns out, that's not the craziest thing that happens in the film. But if you're up for a little craziness (okay, make that a lot), then Almodovar's plastic-surgery-revenge-horror-thriller (take a moment and let that genre cocktail sink in), might be just what you need, even if it's not among his finest efforts.
The film, which reunites Almodovar with Antonio Banderas, focuses on plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard, who develops a special type of synthetic skin capable of withstanding tremendous amounts of damage. The good doctor is also keeping a woman (Elena Anaya) locked up in room in his lavish Toledo home, for reasons completely unknown at the start of the film, even though the start is really near the story proper's conclusion. Like many a good tale, Skin involves a framing device and a lengthy flashback. And, like just about any Almodovar film, it also blends elements of noir, camp, and brooding melodrama. The script, also written by Almodovar, may be adapted from Thierry Jonquet's novel "Tarantula," but just as the Coen brothers did with No Country for Old Men, Almodovar has made the story entirely his own.
The emotions driving the film may not go much more than skin deep, but at the very least the execution offers up plenty to savor. As always, the color red sneaks its way into the frame at every opportunity, and Jose Alcaine's cinematography richly captures the mostly interior-set scenes. We're dealing with material that, without spoiling anything, could have easily turned into Hostel-style shlock. Thankfully, we have a master at the helm to keep things under control. Horror and thriller elements may be involved in the story, but Almodovar doesn't go over the top; he keeps the major freak-out element grounded within the rest of the narrative. So when the film really hits its stride, it's hard to look away, even at the comparatively tame scenes (rarely does a shot of a woman tearing up clothes feel so stylish and intense). Carried along by Alberto Iglesias' lush, frantic score, Skin features the director's eye for captivating imagery at its finest. That is, for part of the time.
Where the film gets into trouble isn't in the ending (there's no silly last-minute twist of any sort), but rather the beginning. Rather than elegantly setting up the story before moving into the big flashback, the first portion of the film is a scattershot sequence that keeps throwing things at the audience in hopes that something will stick. It's structural issues like this that keep scenes like the above-mentioned tiger man rape incident (I had to stop a second after realizing that I did, in fact, just type that) from achieving greater impact. With so little to latch onto at the start of the film, it's difficult to get invested or really care. The early sections also fall victim to exposition, which is especially irritating when we're told something, only to see it again in the flashback. Almodovar knows how to show so exquisitely, and it's puzzling as to why he sometimes resorts to telling like this.
Thankfully these issues don't sink the whole ship. In addition to the excellent technical aspects, the performances from Banderas, Anaya, and Almodovar regular Marisa Paredes, are all quite strong. Like the film around them, their work tends towards the surface only (Robert's desire for revenge never feels quite as passionately twisted as it should), but they are ultimately effective and play off of each other well. Banderas in particular is a nice surprise, playing his role quite straight, and never giving into the temptation to make him a mad scientist caricature. Almodovar has recently been known for his collaborations with leading lady Penelope Cruz, but Skin stands as a firm reminder that the director is more than capable of drawing strong work from his male leads as well. It's probably a good thing that the lead of the story is a man as well, because without Robert, I suspect just about every man who ever sees this film will walk out terrified to ever get on their girlfriend's bad side, especially if she's a surgeon. The Skin I Live In might not be the most accomplished or memorable of Almodovar's filmography, but at the very least it shows the director trying to change his game. One character tells Robert that stories always end up repeating themselves. Thankfully, the same can't be said about Almodovar's career.