Pygmalion meets Frankenstein by way of the imagination of Pedro Almodovar in The Skin I Live In, as tensely creepy and compelling a film as the Spanish maestro has yet made. And that’s going some.
Almodovar, reunited with Antonio Banderas, uses the star’s matinee-idol looks to mask the unhinged psyche that guides this character: a grief-stricken plastic surgeon whose quest for vengeance takes him to uncharted territory. Did I say mask? Almodovar’s film is about the faces we show and the faces we hide — and also about how much of our personality we owe to the face we are born with.
Banderas is Dr. Robert Ledgard, first seen doing skin grafts on a woman in a body stocking, Vera (Elena Anaya), who could be his patient (in a lock-down ward of some sort). She’s a vehicle for his transplants, in an effort to create a new kind of skin that will be impervious to fire or other destructive forces.
But his mentor at the science institute where he gives a paper on his discoveries warns him: Mixing human and animal DNA (the doctor incorporates genetic strands from much tougher pigskin to make the humanoid skin more fire-resistant) is against the laws of man and science.
Back at the doctor’s house, Vera and his housekeeper, Marilia (Marisa Paredes), are visited by Marilia’s criminally insane son, Zeca (Robert Alamo) — who arrives dressed up and made up to look like a tiger for Carnival. The feral Zeca finds and rapes Vera — but the good doctor comes home in time to kill and dispatch Zeca.
At which point Almodovar starts playing with time, allowing Marilia to tell her own story to Vera — and to then let Almodovar tell Vera’s story to the audience. It’s the latter that carries the plot forward (or backward, then forward), as we discover who Vera is and how she came to be Ledgard’s patient and prisoner.
Early on, Ledgard mentions the idea of face transplants — now a reality in medical science, though still one fraught with layers of literal and figurative meaning.
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