Pedro Almodóvar’s films have always reveled in the flesh. From his early kink to Penélope Cruz’s artificially padded curves in Volver, the message was the meat. Even at his darkest, the body, at least, was celebrated, like the camera in Bad Education taking time out from portraying religious sexual abuse to ogle Gael Garcia Bernal’s body emerging from a swimming pool, white briefs sheer from the wetness. That might be why no matter how much rape, murder, or other outrageous depravity Almodóvar throws our way, his films, for the most part, leave us buoyed, or at least only gently jostled. The comatose rape victim in Talk to Her ended the film with a dance performance; while we’re alive, we’ll always have our bodies.
That’s no longer a comfort in the director’s new film, The Skin I Live In (a title that, like one of the film’s leads, Antonio Banderas, is much better in Spanish), his most explicitly preoccupied with skin yet, but (indulge me with the false dichotomy) also his most cerebral. Almodóvar’s still interested in all his usual themes — desire, twisted lineages, loss, and, especially, femininity, and gender — but the burden of meaning has shifted from the messy warmth and color of his characters to the precision of his visual poetics. Like its namesake, The Skin I Live In is a dazzling maze of surfaces: coolly linked images, visual motifs, and cinematic references, from Buñuel to B movies.
The primary surface and skin in question belongs to — or rather, is worn by — Vera (Elena Anaya), a prisoner in a sleek modern room in the mansion and plastic surgery clinic of her captor, Dr. Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), who stares at her from another room on a wall-sized flat screen like she’s a portrait, to help himself unwind after a long day on the job.
As we soon discover, though, Vera is the doctor’s real work. He’s obsessed with transforming her into his vision of the perfect woman, one sheet of genetically modified (swine DNA combined with ours) skin at time, which he carefully — almost lovingly — grafts onto her. Besides trying to kill herself with a fashion magazine, Vera complies readily, with such interest in her own progress that it’s easy to mistake her resignation for complicity. But however slippery their dynamic, what’s clear is that for the first time in Almodóvar’s post-All About My Mother oeuvre, the body is a trap, not an escape, for both possessor and possessed.
Like Dr. Ledgard, Almodóvar wraps his subjects in layers of literal and metaphorical skin. Elena Anaya’s dangerously controlled performance as Vera hints at underlying violence, but the equilibrium shatters completely when a man in a tiger suit (it’s Carnival) shows up at the estate, creating a disruption that causes Dr. Ledgard to let Vera out of the room forever. Now “free” to roam the very nice house, as long as she promises the doctor she’ll never ever leave him, she sheds the flesh-colored body stocking she’s been wearing (which Dr. Ledgard gave her to protect her creation, calling it, in a bad joke, her “second skin”) and begins to wear dresses. He even lets her watch whatever she wants on television.
It’s a perverse (if not always inaccurate) joke about marriage (in a film that’s complex enough in its take on gender to fuel dissertations for years to come), but it hasn’t got a thing on how the union came to be, as we discover when Almodóvar begins to jump into the characters’ past. Science fiction, exploitation, torture porn, and other genres that seemingly shouldn’t mix with Spanish drama congeal as gorgeously as Vera’s hybrid skin. Even by Almodóvar’s standards, this plot is impossibly gnarled and pitted as a burn victim’s scars, and it’s thrilling that he can even keep such an insane film alive, let alone make it graceful. More unfathomable still is how, no matter how exponentially melodramatic the story grows, it never bleeds a drop of sentimentality to stain its pristine surface. The film even begins to fade to black before the its final cathartic revelation has been completely uttered.
Thus, The Skin I Live In might be Almodóvar’s most disturbing film, but not for the violence its characters perpetrate. A deeper chill comes from its intact surfaces than the ones that we see sliced open. When Dr. Ledgard tells Vera, examining his work, that her breasts are perfectly formed, like two drops of water sliding down her body, it’s hard not to appreciate his craft or his metaphor. Whether in art or skin, Almodóvar’s made a film that makes us ambivalent about its own beauty.