This is one of the best films of the year. Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In is, as you might expect if you’re familiar with his work, colorful, sexual, suspenseful, and strangely funny. This one recalls his Bad Education a bit, but it’s its own film entirely.
Antonio Banderas, in one of his better roles in a long time, plays Robert Ledgard, a troubled plastic surgeon. Ledgard keeps a young woman captive in his mansion. She goes by the name Vera Cruz (Elena Anaya) and has, we learn, physical similarities to Ledgard’s since-deceased wife. Ledgard is performing some new procedure on her, which gradually reveals itself throughout the film.
The inevitable “Hitchcock-ian” descriptions have cropped up, but that seems to be commonplace for anything that has a psycho-sexual look at a suspense plot. Some of Almodovar’s dramatic angles feel “Alfred-ian,” but this is fully an Almodovar film. There are some Frankenstein references. Oldboy is in there. So is Eyes Without a Face. But what makes this tick is the director’s mise-en-scene, a strong, ironic script, and great performances.
Almodovar has a great strategy in The Skin I Live In, and it’s to play a joke on his audience. Early in the film he completely sexualizes Vera. As Ledgard watches her on his gigantic monitor, Almodovar’s camera pans along her naked body. The camera frequently just stares at her beauty. She becomes an object of desire for the audience as much as for Almodovar and Ledgard.
Then, gradually, the rug gets pulled out from under us. Ledgard kidnapped a young man whom he thinks raped his daughter and drove her to suicide. He traps the young man, Vincente (Jan Cornet) in his basement and gives him a vagioplasty (figure it out). He gives him breasts. He turns him into a woman. A woman that looks like his wife. And then tries to sleep with Vincente/Vera.
The structure therefore places us in the same crazed position as Ledgard. We’ve gazed at Vera and all of her beauty early on. If later we’re disgusted by Ledgard’s actions we should think whether we enjoyed the view as Almodovar’s camera crawled its way along Vera’s body. It’s a great reversal of the male-gaze, forcing us into the uncomfortable position of pleasant voyeur-turned-crazed surgeon. Almodovar equates us with Ledgard. He watches Vera on a screen and we watch both of them on a screen. He is our captive as she is his.
There’s plenty of other irony in here, including Vincente nearly raping Ledgard’s daughter, and then Vera nearly being raped by Ledgard’s estranged brother. These are soap opera histrionics – a characteristic of many an Almodovar film. His last film, Broken Embraces, didn’t seem to fully embrace (eh?) those tactics, and it drifted its way through its plot. The Skin I Live In feels so much more confident than that last effort. Its extreme high angles, painterly compositions, white and red-dominated color schemes, operatic music, and effortlessly moving camera, work counter to the slow dolly in, under-thought aesthetic of an actual soap opera. It’s as though the plot from One Life To Live was ripped off the page, rewritten to take advantage of all the ironies a soap opera has to offer and to make them reflexive, and then placed in the hands of a master visualist.
That’s precisely why The Skin I Live In is so great. As with any Almodovar film it’s very aware of its drama, but it uses these dramatic moments to comment on itself – sex in The Skin I Live In isn’t just sex, it’s twisted revenge that involves the audience in its scheme; violence in The Skin I Live In, isn’t just violence, it’s casual and underwhelming.
There’s a great moment in this film when Almodovar’s camera frames Ledgard from behind as he watches Vera. She sits on a couch, back to him, legs stretched out. He does the same on his couch, mimicking her pose, though with his head on the opposite side. He only holds it for a few seconds but, the varying points are made: they complete one another, her position (that we soon find is due to attempted suicide) foreshadows his death, he watches her in the exact same way that we watch him, etc.