The Skin I Live In Review

(3.5 STARS)

The Skin I Live In is like a surrealist painting. Like the best Dalis and Picassos, some will likely be horrified by what director Pedro Almodovar has put forward. Others, like me, will find the film evocative and discussion-worthy. Neither reaction is necessarily right because the film is both painfully intense and incredibly passionate. What can’t be denied is Almodovar’s moxie. He attempts things, for better or worse, that few other filmmakers would have the guts to try. And though the melodrama is at times too much to handle, this weird, wild, and totally original film comes through shining.

Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) is a brilliant plastic surgeon on the verge of a tremendous discovery. For years, he’s worked on a synthetic skin that protects people from burns. It’s a real medical breakthrough, but it’s destined to never see the light of day because of the way Ledgard went about proving the skin’s success. Vera (Elena Anaya) is Robert’s prisoner. During the day, his housekeeper, Marilla (Marisa Paredes), cares for her, while the evenings are spent with Robert studying her synthetic skin. The two share quite a complicated relationship. Though she longs for Robert sexually, she remains his prisoner, and even attempts to kill herself early in the film, in order to escape him.

One day, an intruder, Zeca (Roberto Alamo), breaks into Robert’s compound. A wanted fugitive, Zeca ties up Marilla and demands sanctuary until Robert can perform a facial transplant on him. But once he gets a glimpse of the beautiful woman locked up in the house, he breaks into Vera’s prison and rapes her. Robert doesn’t take this action lightly, and the consequences of their confrontation ultimately help us and Vera understand exactly why she’s being held captive.

The Skin I Live In‘s structure is very complex, and makes a simple, spoiler-free plot description somewhat difficult. A good third of the film happens before we go back in time six years for a very large chunk of time. An extensive coda follows, which provides a semblance of closure, but it’s really that middle section that will make or break The Skin I Live In for you. Even the film’s most ardent supporters have to admit some of what happens is totally bananas. So your enjoyment of the film will ultimately come down to how willing you are to give yourself over to the film’s sillier and less believable concepts.

While fans like me must recognize the validity of an opposing view, at least as far as the film’s melodramatic tendencies go, its most fervent detractors must in turn concede that the film looks and sounds brilliant. It’s an objectively gorgeous piece of work. The way Almodovar uses his sets and costumes and music to elicit an intensely emotional response—whether it be positive or negative—in practically every scene is the kind of thing only an auteur like him can actually pull off.

Antonio Banderas is excellent playing against type as the admittedly psychotic doctor. His brand of crazy is a very restrained one, but there isn’t a minute that goes by in which we doubt his mental state. There isn’t anything likeable about Robert, but Banderas’s searing performance is very easy to admire.

The supporting cast is sold, but there aren’t any performances (outside of Banderas’) that I’ll likely remember a few months from now. The film, on the other hand, is something I won’t shake for a long time. It’s a very tough sit, but it engaged me from beginning to end, and while I know it’s not for everyone, fans of adventurous, challenging cinema will at the very least find The Skin I Live In an original vision from a man who really knows how to direct a film.

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