Skin deep

The Skin I Live In

Trust him. He’s a doctor.

Trust him. He’s a doctor.

Rated 4.0

On one level, The Skin I Live In is simply a mad-scientist movie. But it’s a mad-scientist movie by Pedro Almodóvar, so it can’t really be “simply” that—or “simply” anything. So on another level, it’s a movie about obsession, and the man with the obsession just happens to be a scientist whose obsession has just about driven him mad. Oh, and his obsession? It’s with skin.

No, he’s not a pornographer or a peeping Tom. He’s a plastic surgeon, Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), and his obsession dates back years, to the day his wife committed suicide. She had been horribly burned in an auto accident; Robert had saved her life, but at the cost of a ghastly crust of scar tissue covering her entire body. After a protracted convalescence, the woman had caught a glimpse of herself in a mirror and, in a frenzy of self-revulsion, leapt out the nearest window to her death. Now Robert dedicates himself to developing an artificial skin that will be impervious to burns and other kinds of injury.

Robert discusses his research in a paper presented at the biotechnology institute where he works, and the institute’s president becomes alarmed. Robert has clearly—he admits as much—transgressed the bounds of medical ethics, and the president orders him to cease his experiments forthwith.

The president doesn’t know the half of it. He thinks he has stopped Robert in the nick of time from testing his synthetic skin on a human subject, but we know it’s already too late for that: Even as he stands at the podium intoning his presentation in a flat, monotonal voice, Robert has a patient in residence in his in-home laboratory.

Did I say “patient”? She’s actually a prisoner, a guinea pig. She’s Vera (Elena Anaya), and we’ve already observed her, pacing her spotlessly sterile room in a skin-tight, flesh-colored unitard that covers her from the top of her neck to the base of her toes. Vera gets her food through a dumbwaiter and endlessly practices yoga exercises, as if seeking some kind of inner peace. Around her are an array of surveillance cameras connected to monitors in the kitchen, where Robert’s housekeeper Marilia (Marisa Paredes) watches Vera’s every move. Vera’s face, a triumph of Robert’s art, is no longer the one she was born with; it’s the face of Robert’s dead wife.

The movie’s plot is set in motion by the unexpected appearance of Marilia’s prodigal son Zeca (Roberto Álamo), a wanted man who is able to appear in public only because it’s Carnival time and he’s in disguise as a tiger—like Vera, he’s wearing a skin that isn’t his own. There’s a rape, a murder, a coverup and The Skin I Live In is underway in earnest. Before it’s over, events will embroil Robert’s daughter Norma (Blanca Suárez) and Vicente (Jan Cornet), the drug-popping son of a local dress-shop owner.

That’s about all I can tell you—if I haven’t already said too much—without the Spoiler Police hammering on my door. Almodóvar’s screenplay (based, apparently loosely, on a novel by French writer Thierry Jonquet) is really a pretty straightforward story, but the discovery of just how straightforward it is comes to us only gradually, in revealed bits and flash-backed pieces, and the elegance of Almodóvar’s design is the movie’s main pleasure—not only the design of his plot, but the physical design of the movie itself (by Anxtón Gómez) and José Luis Alcaine’s lushly sharp cinematography.

The Skin I Live In is, in a way, Almodóvar’s venture into horror, and while there’s little blood and less gore, it’s certainly not for the timorous. There are echoes of Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, Hitchcock’s Vertigo and just about anybody’s Frankenstein. There probably aren’t many directors who could pull off a three-way combination like that and make it uniquely and coherently their own, but Almodóvar manages it.

One touch, a typical Almodóvar prank, is that Vera’s full name is Vera Cruz—that is, “True Cross.” It’s a witty flourish, and I wonder how many viewers will catch it. I also wonder if it’s the same kind of pun in Spanish that the translation is in English.

Oops, now I’m afraid I have said too much.