As they say, Beauty is only skin deep. Obsession, on the other hand, is a virus that infects the mind and deteriorates any sense of logic or ethical morality. Such is the case of the stunning, disturbing, eloquent, poetic, horrifying, and melodramatic film The Skin I Live In, written and directed by Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar. Loosely based on the story Mygale by Thierry Jonquet, the film is at once a return to Almodóvar’s familiar themes as well as an exploration into new ideas and a spin on old tropes.
Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas, reuniting with Almodóvar for the first time in over two decades) is a brilliant plastic surgeon who has created a new synthetic skin that is the closest to indestructible that we have ever come to knowing. After years of testing and experimentation, the doctor has reached a part of the scientific process that he is satisfied with enough to show it to his medical peers. What his colleagues in the scientific community are unaware of, however, is that not only is the skin made unethically (Banderas has a lengthy explanation on how the new skin has hybrid cells), it has been tested unethically.
Like any good mad man, especially one with a medical degree, he houses his human guinea pig in an enclosed area in his house. Vera (Elena Anaya, Almodóvar’s Talk to Her), a beautiful, frightened young woman is caged in a spacious, sterile environment, a woman who has the striking resemblance to the good doctor’s late wife. Underneath her skin hide many secrets of both her and the doctor’s pasts.
Almodóvar is well known for his domestic melodramas and films about the search for self and identity. Gender identity, sexual identity, etc. are explored here. However, while this is familiar ground for Almodóvar, there is a new element added to his list of themes: horror. Thematically and (somewhat) aesthetically inspired by Georges Franju’s French horror film Eyes without a Face, the plastic surgery aspect of the film is blatantly an homage to Franju. However, while the homage is overt, Almodóvar does not try to update it in a gratuitous way, at least not initially. The medical scenes themselves are fairly classical in their style, with steady camera work and sterile, monochromatic coloring. The allusions made to Franju’s film are one that are of clear admiration for Eyes without a Face, a film that also dealt with a similar kind of identity crisis, but via a B-movie environment.
Part horror film and also part erotic melodrama, the sexuality that is injected into every frame of the film is intoxicating, euphoric, and even sometimes horrific. But sexuality serves as symbolism here, as Almodóvar uses it to explore his favorite ideas of sexual identity and power. (Choice scene: The teenage orgy in the garden outside of the doctor’s house. Almost as if Almodóvar is recreating a dirtier version of the forests in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dreams, with the randy nymphs incarnated as horny teens.) The power divide between men and women is juxtaposed here between Vera’s simmering sensuality and the doctor’s initial reserve and respect. The erotica featured, though, is made with a sense of snarkiness as well, as if the director is teasing you with what he already knows. Not quite an example of dramatic irony, though; just the director being clever.
The film’s look is at times majestic and at others sterile and immaculate. There is a harsh juxtaposition of the synthetic and the natural in set design regarding even the spaces of the house that the doctor both lives and tests in. Blending natural stone and marble architecture and decoration, with elements of wood and foliage, the laboratory and the room where Vera is kept are both stark and naked of any real descriptive qualities. The room, despite having housed Vera for several years, is still not home to her. It is the same as a kennel, essentially, devoid of remarkable nuances that the rest of the house has. The laboratory has an artificial and frighteningly immaculate sheen to it. While this perfection may make sense on a realistic and scientific level, the sheer cleanliness and sterility, matched with the color palette that Almodóvar uses, offers something disconcerting about the area to the viewer. It has shades of blue and white around it, its walls not entirely of silver or chrome. It is, essentially, too clean. The cinematography, by José Luis Alcaine, is steady and beautiful. Vivid colors are employed and represent various moods and feelings in the film. The sterile feel to the ugly procedure is complimented by its sterile cinematography, with perfect tracking shots. And because of its roots being from Eyes without a Face, the camera lingers on the face of each actor for the perfect amount of time, capturing reactions and expressions flawlessly. The chiseled features of Banderas are contrasted, quite often, with the silky smooth features of Elena Anaya. To sum it up, the look of the film has been created with, ahem, surgical precision.
The performances are unsurprisingly top notch. Antonio Banderas plays Ledgard with precision and madness, fluctuating back and forth between the façade of sanity and their internal insanity like Dr. Hannibal Lecter, except without the Chianti. After having been exposed to Banderas only by his roles in English language films, it is pleasant to see him back in his environment. Banderas seems like he is more comfortable playing a role in a Spanish language film, one where he can much more easily play with the cadence and intonation of his character to achieve a specific effect. The moral ambiguity of the character constantly is brought to light, and one wonders how obsessed they would be if they were in his situation. His madness and passion for the project, though, is completely believable and riveting throughout the entire film.
Elena Anaya has a soft, sensual beauty that is completely intoxicating and maddening in the film. Artificially created or not, one becomes jealous of how beautiful she is and how fragile she is. Her fragility though, just like everything else in the film, is nothing but a façade. She can fight and survive like any female character, but the layers to her story are as fascinatingly synthetic as the skin she lives in. Her flawless beauty, though, may become oddly problematic by the end.
A note on the ending, sans spoiler: Did not care for it. It seemed to regress in style and tone by then.
By the end of the film, the title is obvious and fitting. The title, The Skin I Live In, seems to encompass all of the tees that Almodóvar has fun playing around with in this film. And what a film it is! Disturbing, complex, and beautiful, Almodóvar combines his favorite variations with new elements of horror and a little sci-fi, and reunites with Banderas. The Skin I Live in is a brilliantly twisted exercise in the horror of self-identity and obsession. As fashion designer Alexander McQueen once said, “There’s blood underneath every layer of skin.”