Eminent plastic surgeon Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), ever since his wife was horribly burned in a car crash, has been interested in creating a synthetic skin with which he could have saved her. After years of boundary-pushing research he finally cultivates an inflammable epidermis, and sets out to test it on a human guinea pig. Assisted by his longtime, live-in housekeeper Marilia (Marisa Paredes), Ledgard painstakingly performs dozens if not hundreds of skin grafts on a mysterious woman (Elena Anaya), who’s clothed in tight tan body stockings and kept locked away in his Toledo mansion, not unlike Rapunzel. When Marilia’s estranged, fugitive son Zeca (Roberto Alamo) talks his way into Ledgard’s house, it sets in motion a chain of lethal events, which is then interspersed with material from six years earlier, shedding further light on the full nature of Ledgard’s personal tragedy with his wife and daughter.
The Skin I Live In is a movie at once artful and demented, the sort of blend one can’t imagine a lot of filmmakers attempting, let alone pulling off as engagingly as director Pedro Almodóvar does. Loosely based on a novella by Thierry Jonquet, Almodóvar and Banderas’ first teaming since Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is a little puzzle-box gem of clinically constructed perversity. Some might describe it as tonally schizophrenic or less than the sum of its calculated parts, perhaps feeling a bit tricked by being lured into a psychological horror film whose full-blown depravity takes a while to develop, like a Polaroid.
That criticism, however, doesn’t give due credit to Almodóvar’s orchestration. The filmmaker delivers twists but then toys with audience expectations, and more fully plumbs the psychology of said twists, in often uncomfortable ways, by taking them to warped, quasi-logical extremes. Many of the film’s commingled major themes are familiar — betrayal, loneliness, secrecy, vengeance, sexual identity and compulsion — but they are offset by Alberto Iglesias’ wonderful score, exquisite sets, and characteristically lush production design and costumes, all of which counterbalance the darkness of the material. The result is a Skin one can’t quite imagine anyone other than Almodóvar feeling quite as at ease in. (Sony Pictures Classics, R, 117 minutes)