Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Stars: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Jan Cornet
Plot: A plastic surgeon develops a type of synthetic skin that doesn’t damage and tests it on a mysterious woman called Vera who he is holding captive.
You never really know what to expect from Spanish cinema, due to its ever-expanding repertoire of genres and willingness to push boundaries. As celebrated directors such as Pedro Almodóvar, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro González Iñárritu consistently cast international stars like Antonio Banderas, Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem, Iberian films are far more accessible now than they have ever been. Retaining a unique, visceral style with a dash of Hollywood, The Skin I Live In is no exception – this makes Nip/Tuck look like a series of paper cuts.
Surgeon Robert Ledgard (Banderas) makes a claim to a medical conference in the Spanish town of Toledo, that he has managed to create a type of skin that doesn’t burn having only tested this on mice. Ledgard returns to his mansion, which doubles as his research centre and laboratory, where he is actually holding a woman called Vera (Anaya) captive, while using her as a guinea pig for his experiments. Also living there is housekeeper Marilia (Marisa Paredes), who is not only completely complicit in Robert’s plan to keep Vera permanently locked in her room, but has an extreme animosity towards her, to the point that she wishes Vera were dead. Robert keeps Vera under 24-hour surveillance, having cameras trained on her from the kitchen and the adjoining room for his regular admiration.
Marilia’s long-lost son Zeca (Roberto Álamo) suddenly turns up at the gates dressed in a tiger costume as he is hiding from the police after committing an armed robbery. He asks his mother to hide him for a few days whilst Robert is away, but spots Vera on the CCTV monitor, breaks into her room and rapes her. Robert comes home and shoots Zeca dead. Marilia tells her secret to Vera that Robert and Zeca are actually half-brothers and also the reason for his obsession. Twelve years earlier, his wife Gal was badly burned in a car crash and barely survived the accident. She saw her own reflection and jumped to her death out of the bedroom window, an act their daughter Norma (Blanca Suárez) witnessed. As a result, Norma was consigned to psychiatric treatment and was just starting to recover from the trauma when she was raped at a wedding reception by a young man named Vicente (Cornet). Norma commits suicide and Robert seeks terrible revenge against his daughter’s attacker. How Vera came to be a captive is revealed as we also learn how Robert visited his own inimitable style of retribution on Vicente.
The Skin I Live In is terrifically weird yet fascinating at the same time. The unusual subject matter is a million miles away from anything that Hollywood could ever dream up – this is mainly down to Pedro Almodóvar’s direction. The famed Spanish director ensures that the tightly wound script is unravelled layer by layer before the major plot twist is exposed. Investment in the characters and their motives in a movie such as this is absolutely crucial. Antonio Banderas, who we are used to seeing play the generic character of El Mariachi in various forms whether it be in Desperado (1995), Assassins (1995) or Spy Kids (2001), as Robert Ledgard is a cold, calculating power freak, whose uncontrollable fixation on his dead wife knows no bounds. Our sympathy with Ledgard is initially limited until, as each of his life’s tragedies are shown, this cynicism turns into a strange understanding for this anti-hero, despite his deeds. Banderas’ performance is pitch-perfect – without a suitably grotesque central character, there would be little to like.
Defined by some as a horror, the film’s genre is actually a voyeuristic drama with very limited amounts of gore. This is surprising given the context but with a very restrained, almost sterile style, Almodóvar has fashioned a more conventional visual interpretation, but with brilliant flashes of weirdness. The supporting cast complements Banderas, with Paredes’ tortured housekeeper being the standout. The gorgeous Anaya and Suárez as Vera and Norma respectively, are much more than just eye candy. They both bring their characters to life so well that it would be no surprise to see them follow a similar career path to the luminous Penélope Cruz – so watch this space. As far as the plot is concerned, there’s plenty to keep you intrigued right to the end, although the huge plot twist may not only be spotted a little too early, but also be too hard to swallow for some.
The Skin I Live In is a very welcome addition to the growing list of commercially successful Spanish films. A superb cast and a wickedly, almost darkly comic storyline make this well worth the effort.