After thirty years of campy comedy, passionate drama, luscious female characters and brightly coloured set design, it’s a joy to see that Pedro Almodóvar still manages to surprise the audience, and have fun while he’s at it. His latest film, The Skin I Live In (La Piel Que Habito), carries on from 2009’s neo-noir Broken Embraces in its cheeky co-option of genre tropes, although where that film was still sensual and perky, this new effort is decidedly perverse.
Long-time collaborator Antonio Banderas stars as Robert Ledgard, a brilliant doctor who specialises in reconstructive surgery. He also conducts revolutionary research in his secluded home, where he experiments on a young woman, Vera (Elena Anaya), whom he holds captive. Dressed in a body stocking, and under constant, voyeuristic surveillance, Vera holds the key to a major medical breakthrough, as her skin is extremely resistant to heat.
With its mild sci-fi concept, and compelling mystery, the film does not resemble a typical Almodóvar film, although the wonderfully over-dressed sets, where clinical, futuristic laboratories rub shoulders with rural Spanish architecture and eclectic, polystylist interiors, do recall the director’s visual flair, even if the vibrant colours have been exchanged for a more muted, stark palette.
Just as surprising is the director’s complete dedication to the genre, with energetic montage sequences of petri dishes and pipettes, as Robert gets to work conjuring up his artificial skin. Likewise, the intrigue builds as we watch Vera, isolated from the world just as her inhuman barrier distances her from human feeling, go about her daily routine of yoga, reading, and creating patchwork sculptures.
Odd flourishes crop up from time to time, such as Robert’s anachronistic predilection for smoking opium, or the appearance of overly dramatic intertitles. However, the director’s straight face is maintained. At least, that is until a man in a tiger costume (the son of Robert’s housekeeper) turns up, and not only disrupts the characters’ secluded existence, but the film’s own sense of sanity.
From there, things spiral. Almodóvar obviously revels in pulling the rug from under the audience, feigning one way in the narrative, before confounding expectations later on. Indeed, a mid-film flashback to six years earlier, which charts the tragic life of Robert’s daughter, and its effect on Robert himself, is played with great tenderness, but the revelations contained within have major ramifications on the plot. It’s the sort of twist which reveals that you are watching an entirely different film to what you initially thought, one which turns assumptions about the characters – their relationships, their motivations – on their head.
Such a barmy development (to recount it would diminish its effect) only works thanks to the great poise, patience and skill with which Almodovar spins his yarn. The pay-off is worth it, especially as it comes with a healthy dose of absurdity, as the twist is so shocking in its concept and implications, that the continuation of the emotionally complex thriller plot is laced with bizarre, outlandish humour.
The Skin I Live In succeeds because of this flexibility, which allows it to be both utterly ridiculous and still unnerving, teasing bemused cackles out of the audience while leaving ample room for thematic undercurrents which interrogate male sexual aggression. Banderas, flecked with grey hairs and maturing into a distinguished middle age, plays Robert as part-mad scientist, part-traumatised family man, and Anaya’s initially distant, ethereal approach to Vera gains significant weight and complexity as the film skips along.
Likewise, Alberto Iglesias’ astounding score is a diverse work, taking in a wide array of tones and arrangements, shifting from high tension string sections, to electronic backbeats, from guitar drones to moody saxophone. It’s a complicated set of cues for a complicated film. Both the soundtrack and the movie it supports pull in many different directions, but in each case we are in the thrall of a major talent. And being led by the nose has never been such creepy, crazy fun.