Having made his debut in Pedro Almodóvar’s 1982 farce Labyrinth of Passion and made his name in 1988s Oscar-nominated black comedy Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, before decamping to Hollywood and international celebrity, Antonia Banderas reunites with the Spanish auteur for The Skin I Live In. Loosely based on Thierry Jonquet’s French novella Tarantula, the film is a gloriously florid melodrama with shades of inky horror that includes all of Almodovar’s trademark motifs; sexual desire, betrayal, confused identity, grief and long-simmering revenge.
The film opens with operatic images of a mysterious, beautiful woman performing yoga-like stretches while clad in a flesh-coloured body-stocking. She is Vera (Elena Anaya), who lives in a starkly appointed room at the top of a mansion owned by Banderas’ Dr Robert Ledgard, a noted plastic surgeon. Having established his own clinic at the house, Ledgard has devoted years to developing a plastic skin, impervious to the effects of fire, spurred on by the death of his wife in a car accident. Vera is his muse and test subject, her body being reformed under his scalpel as he perfects his techniques.
Despite being captive in the house, or perhaps for that very reason, Vera has fallen in love with the Doctor and, after years of standing aloof, it seems that Frankenstein has begun to feel the same way about his home-made monster. Ledgard’s devoted housekeeper Marilla (Almodovar regular Marisa Paredes) is not keen on this development, and regularly chides her employer for his foolishness, but the Doctor doesn’t care to listen. Events come to a head when Marilla’s fugitive son Zeca (Roberto Álamo) arrives at the front door, triggering a violent series of events that begins to unravel the past and causes Ledgard’s forensically composed façade to crack. The narrative swings back and forth across the years, the still-ringing echoes of the past driving his characters actions in the present.
And that’s about all I’m going to say about the plot. The Skin I Live In holds a secret, a stunning, audacious twist so delicate and monumental that even revealing that it exists at all might spoil the film for the audience. To reveal any more would draw a map through Almodóvar’s serpentine plot and cast a light on his dark obsessions. Forewarned is not always forearmed at the picture house, and going into the film expecting to have everything turn head-over-heels at any time might distract the viewer from the director’s almost-Gothic economy and austerity. Forget I mentioned it.
Returning to Spain for the first time in twenty years, a revitalised Banderas casts off the shackles of his Latin-lover persona to deliver a wholly engrossing performance as the obsessive surgeon, neat and precise in everything he does but hiding deep, dark shadows behind his hooded eyes. Having had a small part in Almodóvar’s Talk To Her, Anaya is a revelation in the leading role, whether posed in a series of achingly beautiful close-ups or wild-eyed and dangerous in sudden, unexpected ways. A highlight – as with many of Almodóvar’s films – is a couple of powerful live musical numbers from the Spanish singer Concha Buika that swell the already swooning mood into something approaching hysteria.