The Skin I Live In is in many ways a return to the genre films Almodovar made earlier in his career, but with the infusion of maturity, confidence, and narrative skill amassed over his later body of work. It’s also a return to his working with Antonio Banderas, a frequent early collaborator. It’s fascinating that both of them have come full circle, and after a successful run in Hollywood, Banderas is no longer quite the hot property he was 15 years ago. But again, the wisdom and maturity that comes from that journey adds so much color to his performance here, and Skin finds Banderas at the top of his craft, exploring dark, emotional corridors with unwavering focus and concentration. This is yet another performance that far outshines a lot of what was nominated for this year’s Academy Awards, and one that really should have received more attention.
The plot of Skin is fairly complex, and it’s structured in such a way as to provide certain elements of surprise and really delve into various pulpy genre conventions. I don’t want to ruin too much, so I’m going to be very particular in how much I explain. But all of Almodovar’s favorite themes, from loopy, insane genre-bending, to permutations of noir and pulp, to sexual politics, to his deep exploration of emotionally complex women all converge quite nicely here. The film poster alone bears similarities to that of the French film Eyes Without a Face, and Almodovar is certainly riffing on the mad scientist genre. As the film opens, we learn that Elena Anaya’s Vera Cruz is a patient of Banderas’ Robert Ledgard. She wears strange body suits to protect her skin and odd face masks, and Ledgard is busy working on some experimental skin grafts for her. She also seems suicidal, and we’re not sure what events figure in her past; perhaps she’s the survivor of some strange fire. As a result, she’s locked in a room in Ledgard’s house, and her meals are prepared for her and sent up to her by way of an elevator in the wall and a dumb waiter within.
Then Skin bounces around in time, and we get some backstory about Ledgard and an earlier life with a beloved daughter. He’s a tragic character, passionate and haunted, and over the course of the story his strange depths are slowly revealed and explored. Through it all, Almodovar balances some disparate changes in tone, seamlessly weaving together his eccentric range of taste in one film. There are parts of Skin that feature the kind of very broad, almost over-the-top parody from early in his career, while other parts showcase a more layered, studied investigation of dark character depths. The fact that Almodovar can find the odd balance to make all of this work together is in many ways a career high. And the success with which everything comes together, both in terms of the plotting and the eclectic and varied themes, will provide any Almodovar lover with some deep satisfaction.
Both Marisa Paredes as Ledgard’s maid, a role that is more complex than it originally appears on the surface, and Anaya as the subject of Ledgard’s painstaking work, turn in accomplished and complex work. Anaya reminds one of Penelope Cruz, who has worked with Almodovar on many films and several of his most recent ones, and certainly fits a particular brand of Almodovar ingenue. Skin is extremely rich both in terms of its genre stylings and the performances, but to reveal any more would be to do the film a disservice. While it’s unfair to characterize anything Almodovar does as straight drama, particularly taking into account his gender politics, the level of twisted genre exploration happening in Skin is exciting to watch. It’s also great fun seeing a filmmaker so accomplished with such a strong voice take such a gleeful headlong sprint into some of the truly bizarre places Almodovar ventures here. Skin is likely the most inventive, playful, and cheekily insane film to hit theatres this past year. It’s visually stylish and gorgeous-looking, creepy and fascinating, and manages to land several different types of emotional sucker-punches. Kudos to Almodovar for this strange and bizarre creation, and hats off to Banderas for taking a risk here that results in perhaps the best work of his career.