Review: 'The Skin I Live In' is skillful and intriguing

"Skin I Live In" is more subtle, wholly unsentimental and rather more brutal than we're used to getting from Pedro Almodóvar.

Story highlights

  • "The Skin I Live In" is significantly darker in tone
  • It contains more than a couple of eye opening moments
  • Antonio Banderas is nothing short of spectacular
This latest film from master filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar will be both familiar to his fans and viewed as a departure.
While it boasts a couple of his regular cast of performers (including Antonio Banderas for the first time in 21 years) it is not an original story (as most of his work is) and is instead adapted by the director and his frequent collaborator, brother Augustin, and based on a novel "Mygale" ("Tarantula" in the UK) by Thierry Jonquet.
It's also significantly darker in tone, more subtle, wholly unsentimental and rather more brutal than we're used to getting from Almodóvar.
World famous plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard (Banderas) lives in an isolated compound called El Cigarral, a magnificent mansion shut off from the world by trees, a wall and gates. In the compound's laboratory Robert is experimenting on a new kind of skin, one developed through the gene therapy called transgenesis, an ethically-challenged procedure that has been banned by Robert's superiors.
Using pig cells, Robert has developed a new kind of human skin that can resist disease, fire and puncture but still transmits other sensations, like human touch. He's achieved this by experimenting on humans, in strict violation of every ethical standard and contrary to the instructions of his medical superiors. One of these human subjects, a young and beautiful woman named Vera (Elena Anaya, "Talk To Her"), is his captive in the mansion and is Robert's latest guinea pig.
Vera lives in a sealed room. Her meals and other materials are delivered via dumbwaiter and her only contact with another person is when Robert is transplanting skin on to her or when he enters her room at night to give her some opium to smoke.
Robert lives with a caretaker, Marilia (Marisa Paredes, "All About My Mother," "Talk To Her"), who is his willing accomplice in this macabre medical experiment and acts as a mother figure to him. She makes meals for Vera and is the only other person with whom she has any contact. Marilia also dotes on Robert, whose tireless albeit creepy work was triggered by the death of his wife some years before, the victim of a horrible car crash and subsequent burning, hence the flam-resistant pigskin.
She didn't die from her burns, however. In the process of being nursed back to health, she caught sight of her horribly disfigured form in a window reflection and immediately leapt from a window. As a result, Robert is intent on perfecting a method for healing burn victims. It all seems altruistic, but there's something definitely....off about Robert and not just the beautiful young woman he keeps captive in his house.
Almodóvar is one of the most skillful and consistently magnificent directors of the last 30+ years and while "The Skin I Live In" may be a bit of a departure from what his fans are used to, it is no less of a skillful and intriguing film. It is rife with the maestro's deft touches of the bizarre rubbing up against the commonplace and the erotic is present where perhaps it is not expected.
At the Toronto International Film Festival, I took to referring to "Skin" as more "Almodó-nenberg" or "Cronen-dóvar," referring to David Cronenberg, whose own offering at this year's Toronto fest is also somewhat atypical of the most famous of his works. It is significantly darker than much of Almodóvar's recent work and contains more than a couple of eye opening "Wait. He did what?" moments.
Alas, many of these moments come so deep into the film, that to allude to them could constitute spoilers. While it's possible that some of you may see what's coming, I did not and I will not deprive you of the singular joy that is a movie-provided "Holy crap!"
Banderas is nothing short of spectacular in what should prove to be a career resurgence for him. His Robert is all simmering emotion, everything below the surface. His is the quiet and determined countenance of the researcher, plying his trade tirelessly for the betterment of humanity....or not. Part of the irony given the subject matter of the film may be that he doesn't look any older than he did 20 years ago.
At the Toronto Film Festival where I screened the film, the common reaction of my fellow film goers when asked their thoughts on the film was something along the line of "I'm not sure, yet." It takes some time to digest, and I think it may perhaps be a film that with time does reveal its secrets and becomes that masterpiece.
"The Skin I Live In" is rated R and contains graphic violence, sexual situations, rape and some rather unsettling ideas surrounding revenge and psychopathy. It is distributed by Sony Pictures Classics and opens on October 14th.