The Skin I Live In

Susan Granger’s review of “The Skin I Live In” (Sony Pictures Classics)

Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar has devised a psychosexual thriller, a perverse, convoluted story that revolves around a celebrated plastic surgeon and his beautiful captive patient.

Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) works in almost complete isolation in a stunning clinical compound called El Cigarral (the Orchard), located outside Toledo, Spain. He’s obsessed with ‘transgenesis,’ conducting cellular experiments that – while they violate standard bioethics – have enabled him to perfect a fire-resistant artificial skin. He’s motivated by the horrific burns and disfiguring scarring that his wife, now deceased, suffered in a car crash.

Clad neck-to-toe in a flesh-colored body stocking, curvaceous Vera (Elena Anaya) is his captive patient, a human guinea pig for his grafting. Observed by Robert on a wall-size video surveillance screen, she practices yoga, scribbles on the walls and meditates in solitude, receiving her meals via a dumb waiter. Enigmatic in demeanor, she’s watched over by Robert’s dutiful, devoted ‘housekeeper,’ Marila (Marisa Parades), whose wastrel son, Zeca (Robert Alamo), makes an unexpected and unwelcome visit during Carnival, clad in a tiger costume.

Based on Thierry Jonquet’s novel “Mygale,” this Dr. Frankenstein-like, existential melodrama is revolting yet riveting with creepy, voyeuristic fascination, as flashbacks reveal a fateful encounter at a family wedding six years earlier between Robert’s mentally disturbed teenage daughter, Norma (Blanca Surez), and a junkie named Vincente (Jan Cornet) who works with his mother in a clothing boutique.

During press interviews, writer/director Pedro Almodovar has cited the influence of Hitchcock, Bunuel, Fritz Lang, the Hammer horror films, the psychedelic kitsch of Dario Argento and the lyricism of Georges Franju’s “Eyes Without a Face” – all of which are obvious.

Superbly cast as the psychopath, Antonio Banderas reteams with Almodovar for the first time since their collaboration in “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down” (1990), in which Banderas played a man recently released from a mental hospital.

In Spanish with English subtitles, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Skin I Live In” is a hyper-stylized 8, a shocking, stunning interlude designed to make you shudder.