Hailed as one of the most provocative films of the year, Pedro Almodóvar’s ‘The Skin I Live In’ is a bizarre drama about a genius plastic surgeon Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) who creates a new type of human skin resistant to all sort of damage, including burns. However, haunted by his past personal tragedies – the death of his wife Gal and daughter Norma, Dr. Ledgard soon goes too far in his scientific experiments when he starts to experiment on his newly captive prisoner Vera (Elena Anaya). The film, which, incidentally, marks the first collaboration in twenty-one years between Antonio Banderas and Almodóvar (‘Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!’ (1990)), is an outstanding achievement, containing masterfully-controlled direction, brilliant film compositions and strong lead performances.
‘The Skin I Live In’, based on the novel by Thierry Jonquet ‘Mygale’ (1995), touches upon many controversial topics and themes, including obsession, crime, personal tragedy, madness, revenge, power, betrayal, gender, sexual identity and death. At times resembling ‘Boxing Helena’ (1993) – in the way it portrays obsessive madness and surgical experimentation; or ‘Irreversible’ (2002) – in terms of its horror impact; at others – ‘Eyes Without a Face’ (1960) – in terms of the plot structure, it seems that the film appeals to the audience of today in the same way as Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ (1818) may still do.
There have been some debates about the genre of ‘The Skin I Live In‘. From psychological thriller to horror and melodrama, the film may encapsulate nearly every genre. The correct classification seems to be: a mystery drama with a horror twist (psycho-sexual drama?). The film seems to trespass on every boundary of a rigid classification, and arouses a sense of eerie uncertainty regarding its subject and plot. As with ‘Shame’ (2011), there will be either those who fall in love with it instantly, or those who will hate it and consider it grossly shocking, if not downright horrifying.
The film’s story-telling is as fluent as that of Hitchcock in ‘Vertigo’ (1958), and the film has a logical, well thought-out structure and sequence of events. Arguably, this is exactly where another Spanish-speaking director, Alejandro Iñárritu, in his film ‘21 Grams’ (2003) faulted so disastrously. ‘The Skin I Live In’ captures the viewer’s attention almost immediately and does not let go until the very end. The film maintains an enviable degree of mystery, without falling into being either too absurd or too imaginative, despite the fact that the movie plays with many incompatible ideas and themes. In that vein, the film becomes a good example to illustrate how to shoot a complex plot without losing control of what matters, or needlessly straying in the process.
The acting is great in the movie. Antonio Banderas, just fresh out of the ‘Shrek’ franchise, gives something special here, playing his character as intense and emotionally-detached as Almodóvar so desires, giving an outstanding performance. Elena Anaya, who plays Dr. Ledgard’s captive, also gives a powerful performance, showing just the right amount of emotional detachment and quite desperation, as her character struggles with the horrific aftermath of Dr. Ledgard’s scientific experimentations. With an outstanding camerawork, setting, costumes and music (Alberto Iglesias), ‘The Skin I Live In’ seems to accept nothing short of perfection.
One of the film’s criticisms is that half-way through it, when “past events” start to overlap with the “present”, and other background stories and characters unexpectedly emerge, e.g., tiger-costumed Zeca (Roberto Alamo), the film does become needlessly confusing. That confusion could have been eliminated by providing more detail as to the events leading up to the emergence of these new characters, but this would have detracted from the atmosphere of mystery permeating the movie. Nevertheless, the film does make a full recovery, and emerges from this “confusion” by providing a very satisfying twist, which few viewers will soon forget.
Although not necessarily for the mainstream audience’s multiple viewings (the film contains a decent amount of graphic content), ‘The Skin I Live In’ is still a triumph of specifically “Almodóvar”s cinematography. From the artistic point of view, the film is very beautiful, with well thought-out shots and a thought-provoking plot sequence. A viewing is essential as the film’s “impact” is virtually guaranteed. 9/10
On psychological level, the film is very interesting because it showcases a mental state of an individual who has just undergone a sex-reassignment surgery. Whoever saw the documentary ‘The Boy Who Was Turned into a Girl’, depicting the life of David Reimer (committed suicide at the age of 38), will know the catastrophic consequences of such a procedure if it is performed without consent, and the fact that “female/male sexuality” is, in fact, “in the brain”, and cannot be “(un)learned”.
It is also a merit to the movie that it could be so scientifically unrealistic, bordering fantastic concepts, and yet, maintain realistic undertones successfully. In that vein, the film is a great play with the audience’s own romantic notions, feelings and sexuality, as they have to psychologically reconcile themselves rapidly to a drastic shift in the film’s circumstances. The procedure which Dr. Robert Ledgard used to modify Vicente was not made clear in the movie, although, realistically speaking, Dr. Ledgard would probably have needed to swap skulls and whole skeletons to achieve the final result in the real world.
Dr. Robert Ledgard presents a nice character study too. Contrary to popular opinion, one can say that Dr. Ledgard, rather than being a psychopath or an evil “monster”, is actually just a man who went insane with grief over losing his family to very traumatic events, becoming obsessed with his wife’s image, desiring to return her to this world at whatever cost. Dr. Robert Ledgard is vindictive and egoistic, but he is also a man who wants to fulfil his professional ambitions, and turning Vicente into Vera presents a real professional challenge for him, which he finds hard to resist.