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New to DVD/Blu-ray: Pedro Almodóvar's Grotesque, Beautiful "The Skin I Live In" Much More Than Skin-Deep


“The Skin I Live In” is strange, layered, provocative, audacious, perverse, and beautiful. It must be a film by Spanish writer-director-auteur Pedro Almodóvar (2009’s “Broken Embraces”). This is far from just another torture horror film, although its ideas are definitely horror-like, but it’s a Frankenstein tale, based on Thierry Jonquet’s novel “Tarantula,” about gender, sexual identity, obsession, revenge, and survival. Like the line from one character saying “I have insanity in my entrails,” Almodóvar’s film has insanity in its entrails as well, but never delves into howling absurdity.

Antonio Banderas, reteaming with Almodóvar for the first time since 1990’s “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!,” plays plastic surgeon Dr. Robert Ledgard, who’s focused on creating a synthetic skin that’s resistant to any kind of damage. He’s been experimenting with the process of transgenesis ever since his wife, Gal, burned to death in a car accident twelve years ago. Now, inside his Toledo, Spain estate, he keeps a flawlessly skinned woman named Vera (Elena Anaya), locked in a room to wear a skin-colored jumpsuit and do yoga and read books all day. Robert has a dutiful servant, Marilia (Marisa Paredes), that lives there to clean and prepare meals for both Robert and his “patient” through the dumbwaiter while keeping a close eye on the guinea pig via video monitors. Who is Vera and how did she get there?

“The Skin I Live In” tells its tale out of sequence, and it probably wouldn’t hold as much of an impact if told with a linear structure. There’s a sort of elegance about the storytelling. The first half hour is quite intriguing, percolating with kinky, voyeuristic tension, but where it goes from there is even more unpredictable and unsettling. As the film rewinds to six years earlier, the onion layers are peeled away and gradually reveal the source of Robert’s obsession through his tortured past involving his social-phobic daughter, Norma (Blanca Suárez), and her pill-popping rapist, Vincente (Jan Cornet). At the staggering halfway point, the pieces come together and the knots in your stomach really start forming. Then emotion slowly sneaks into this bizarre, grotesque story’s veins, especially in the perfectly abrupt final scene.

The structure of “The Skin I Live In” is like a house of cards that, if more plot secrets were revealed here, would collapse. Then again, the film is really about the characters, not plot gimmicks, and how their facades converge with their pasts. With allusions to Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” “Vertigo,” and the 1960 French horror classic “Eyes Without a Face,” Almodóvar manipulates us without making us feel cheated or tricked. And like a true horror film, this one actually disturbs without just being disgusting.

Banderas is understatedly creepy and slick as Robert, and yet he never feels like a stock “mad scientist.” He has a past that makes him more protective of Vera than antagonistic. Anaya is not only breathtaking in her beauty as Vera but in the way she challenges herself with the film’s trickiest role. Without getting into character specifics, the actress plays every note convincingly. Aside from an attack by a man in a tiger suite, Anaya never feels like a victim toward Robert. Once we learn more about Vera, she breaks our heart.

On the surface, the film has been artfully crafted with a sleek elegance that’s as precise and sterilized as Vera’s skin. Between Alberto Iglesias’ excellently melodramatic score and Jose Luis Alcaine’s creamy cinematography, this is a silky-smooth production of dedicated collaboration. Some of the themes might’ve been deepened had we connected with the characters early on, but this story is more detached, and wouldn’t work without that specifically campy-chilly tone which Almodóvar gets so right. Those looking for complete compassion won’t be watching the right film, but “The Skin I Live In” is not devoid of emotion; you just have to peel away all the perfect skin to see it.

117 min., rated R.
Grade: B +