Audiences who love the mad-European-scientist subgenre but don't have the stomach for one of the Human Centipede flicks may find Pedro Almodóvar's The Skin I Live In more to their tastes.
Believe it or not, the films have a fair amount in common at a certain level, although Almodóvar's new art thriller and the German torture-porn flicks have completely different goals and payoffs.
The scientist under the microscope in The Skin I Live In is Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas). A surgeon by trade, he has recently crossed an ethical line, combining human DNA with animal genes. The result, he tells a government panel, is a synthetic skin that cannot burn. That's important to Robert, because his wife died more than a decade ago as the result of a fiery car crash. Although he says he has conducted his experiments on mice, Robert has kept a human subject under lock and key—for who knows how long.
Vera (Elena Anaya) wears her synthetic skin under a nude bodysuit. She practices yoga all day long, and is too beautiful to be kept from the world. In fact, she greatly resembles the doctor's late wife. So why does Robert refuse to release her, even after the skin transplant is a glorious success?
As with most things Almodóvar, there is a story on the surface, and a much deeper one underneath. On this occasion, both would be worth watching. There's the Hitchcockian (or at least De Palman) disfiguring-doctor plot, and the one about a man doing everything he can to convince himself his wife is still alive, even though he never explicitly says as much.
Antonio Banderas is something of an afterthought now, but when he crossed the Atlantic in the early 1990s, he was supposed to be the second coming of Rudolph Valentino. It turned out that Banderas was better-suited for comedy, so Zorro and Shrek followed. But he became a commodity worth having in the U.S. in the first place because Banderas had worked with Almodóvar on a string of earlier films, culminating with Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown in 1988. The Skin I Live In is the first time the actor and director have teamed up since, and Banderas shows a new side that's worth exploring. Certainly, Banderas is easy to accept as the handsome, successful surgeon, and that makes the Mr. Hyde to his Dr. Jekyll all the more compelling.
As his subject, Elena Anaya is heartbreaking, especially once all the cards are on the table. For reasons it doesn't behoove a movie review to divulge, the surface story that Vera projects may be traffic-stopping, but it really is the one under her bodysuit—and her new skin—that pushes the film beyond standard-issue psychological-thriller territory.
Of course, the term "standard-issue" is never used to describe Almodóvar, even when his work does lean more mainstream in the way the Hitchcock half of this film does. In fact, it is often the appearance of normal that the legendary writer-director tries to use as the ballast for his real story. But it's not often you see him go this far.
As a storyteller, Almodóvar's legacy is more than secure, but as a director—the wizard behind the curtain pulling strings—The Skin I Live In is some of his best, most-bravura work. The big surprise (and every thriller must have one) happens not at the end, but close to the middle of the film. The surface story wouldn't need it; that mad-scientist plot has legs enough to get to the finish line. When sunlight finds the story underneath, however, The Skin I Live In becomes something else altogether.