Having dazzled us with romances, comedies, woman-centric dramas and mysteries, Spain’s master filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar now gives us a deliriously perverse “Frankenstein” for the 21st century. “The Skin I Live In” builds on what he already has achieved, exploring uncharted, deeply transgressive territory through the lens of a prestige horror movie.
Time and again this mad masterwork has you thinking, “Oh no, they wouldn’t dare go there.” And then it goes several steps further.
The plot is giddy, baroque melodrama, a cascade of rape, retribution, swapped infants, suicides, kidnapping, self-mutilation, doppelgangers and multiple murder. It’s filmed with bravura technique and hyper-vivid Technicolor gloss that puts the opera back in soap opera. The look is a meticulous tribute to Old Hollywood elegance.
The story is so chockablock with surprises that even a brief synopsis would ruin some of the astonishment. Let’s simply say that this is a modern-day mad scientist melodrama involving a captive named Vera (Elena Anaya), held in a storybook-beautiful mansion. Her captor is famed plastic surgeon Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), architect of the kinkiest makeover on record. From the opening onward, aesthetic refinement and uneasiness are poised in delicate balance. We first encounter Anaya performing elegant yoga poses in a skintight leotard whose stitching defines her body like a butcher shop’s diagram of flank, brisket and rump.
Dr. Ledgard, cold as a scalpel, lost his wife a decade earlier as she launched a torrid affair that literally ended in flames. After being severely burned in a car accident, she killed herself. He channeled his rage and grief into the quest to create super-resilient synthetic skin grafts. His unwilling guinea pig is chosen for maximum poetic justice.
As the dreamlike film unfolds, you may find yourself thinking you’re watching the Artforum version of “Rocky Horror.” Yet this is no auteurist prank. The lurid narrative is a mature restatement of the themes Almodóvar explored in his early days as the gender-bending punk boy genius of Spanish cinema. It’s a tragedy of desire, loss and psychosexual disorder.
Banderas is mesmerizing as the voyeuristic surgeon, his performance reminiscent of James Stewart’s melancholy obsessive in “Vertigo.” Anaya, playing a character who is no mere damsel in distress, is radiant in the dauntingly complex role. Marisa Paredes and Roberto Alamo, as the doctor’s ominous housekeeper and her roughneck son, are splendidly cast.
The abrupt finale, which fails to do justice to the intricate story preceding it, is the only stumbling step in a haunting near-masterpiece. Even so, it gets under your skin.