Eric’s Review: The Skin I Live In (2011)

ATMOSfx! Woo!

★★★★ out of ★★★★★

When the mysterious plot entanglements of this sexy thriller get untied, what once was very enticing becomes a very challenging watch.

Directed by Pedro Almodóvar

Pedro Almodóvar has been producing sumptuous films for the better part of thirty years, with colorful and daring productions like Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, Matador, Volver, and Laws of Desire which are soaked in Spanish sensuality. He is not afraid of an NC-17 rating, and he brazenly pushes the erotic edge, without dipping into anything resembling pornography.

In The Skin I Live In, he has re-teamed with longtime collaborator, and first-tier candidate for most handsome man on the planet, Antonio Banderas, to try his hand at thriller/horror material. Banderas plays a celebrated plastic surgeon, Robert Ledgard, who is one of the few surgeons in the world to successfully execute a full face replacement. He has come up with a new method for improving human skin, by controversially using pig DNA to make a tougher dermis, capable of resisting insect bites.

But that’s not the most controversial thing he’s been doing. Unknown to all but his loyal staff, he also has a house prisoner/patient in the form of the lovely Vera Cruz (Elena Anaya), who is residing in his mansion estate, against her will. Or rather, sort of against her will. She has been something of a test subject for some fairly radical procedures by Ledgard.

We learn that Dr. Ledgard has had a turbulent past. His wife died in a fiery car crash, and some criminal malfeasance was at play here. His daughter Norma, already struggling with the death of her mother, was date raped at a wedding that she and Robert were attending together. Now Norma is a fearful schizophrenic and housed in a nearby asylum. And, we learn that Vera Cruz has been surgically altered to look like Robert’s late wife, Gal. And we learn that Robert has a mean streak, and a willingness to use his surgical talents to nasty effect.

These are the primary set pieces that Almodovar has set up, and he interweaves the two stories of the imprisonment of Gal, and Robert’s grief and vengeful spirit regarding his daughter into overlapping mysteries. And to describe the plot much more than this would be to ruin these mysteries. It is difficult at times to peg exactly where the story is going, as the parallel tracks seem curiously disconnected.

Once the story paths intersect in the third act, it caught me by complete surprise. There is a huge AHA! moment, where all the plot development comes to a sudden point of clarity, and I felt like applauding if I had not been nauseated by the moment as well. If you struggle through connecting the dots earlier in the movie, the payoff is fantastic. A conventional horror movie this is not, and you could make a horror movie or not essay about this film. I think a strong argument could be made that this film also owes a lot to the great French horror film, Eyes Without a Face, as inspiration, so that steers it closer to the horror line.

There is a mad scientist element that pushes the film across the horror boundary for me, but it certainly rides the line. Ledgard’s master plan is brilliant and wicked, and the mystery involving why he has Vera as a prisoner/patient/lover is a shocking revelation. Also, a warning to anyone who cannot handle rape scenes: this movie will make you really uncomfortable, and they are both painfully rendered.

This easily could have slid into NC-17 territory, as many other Almodovar films have. The sexual content here is strong, both for the consensual and the abusive… and there is a bit of a blurring of the lines here as well. There is torture and sadism, and toe-curling surgical scenes. But, the movie held onto an R rating. It is available for streaming on Amazon and Vudu.

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