What a difference a piece of source material can make. The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito) is Pedro Almodóvar’s best film since 2004’s Bad Education, and it’s not just because of the return of actor Antonio Banderas to the filmmaker’s stock company.
Almodóvar, who arrived with a bang in the late-1970s with such campy, irreverent films as Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls Like Mom; Dark Habits; and What Have I Done to Deserve This?, typically wrote his own films from scratch. The strategy worked for awhile, but after the novelty of a gay male filmmaker spoofing soap operas and “women’s pictures” in post-Franco Spain wore off, his films often struggled to connect with the same uproarious energy that first propelled him to international renown. The charge frequently leveled at Almodóvar was that he was remaking the same movie again and again.
The Skin I Live In is adapted by Pedro and his brother Agustín Almodóvar from the novel Mygale by French crime author Thierry Jonquet — published in the United States by San Francisco’s City Lights Noir. The late Jonquet’s narrative, named after a large, hairy species of tropical spider, evidently stimulated the 63-year-old director to heights of creativity he hasn’t visited in years. If the number of cinematic references Pedro Almodóvar lists in his voluminous press notes is any indication, Jonquet’s tale of a mad scientist named Robert Ledgard (Banderas) and his secluded surgery laboratory prompted Almodóvar to go off on a crazy creative spree of his own in the film, quoting his favorite auteurs and motifs like a nutty schoolboy. The morbid fun is contagious. Almodóvar is plainly having a good time with the story of one man’s criminal obsession.
It’s difficult to synopsize the movie too deeply without spoiling the numerous plot turns. Moody, solitary Dr. Ledgard lives and works in El Cigarral, an ancient walled and gated villa in Toledo, with his sinister housekeeper Marilia (Almodóvar regular Marisa Paredes). But there’s also a permanent guest at El Cigarral, an inmate of sorts named Vera (Elena Anaya) whom the brilliant but misunderstood doctor keeps locked up in a separate room of his lavish lab, behind a glass wall, the better to observe her. Vera’s face and body are covered in a skintight body suit, and it’s given to us that Ledgard is practicing a bizarre form of plastic and reconstructive surgery, “Transgenesis,” on her — a practice frowned upon by his colleagues in Madrid. Vera faithfully practices yoga in her chamber and poses behind the plate glass wall as if she were an artwork. She’s Dr. Ledgard’s creation in more ways than one.
The action shifts into high gear when a costumed “Tiger Man” named Zeca (Roberto Álamo) arrives at the villa to visit Marilia, his mother. The story then falls down a rabbit hole of revenge, black humor, fetishistic sexual fantasy, flashbacks, hallucinatory set pieces, and enough film-school homages to fuel a separate book. Actors Banderas, Anaya, and Jan Cornet help the director propel the spectacle into a strange twilight world where flavors of Douglas Sirk and R.W. Fassbinder meet whiffs of Universal and Hammer horror pics, David Cronenberg, Roger Corman, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, Funny Face, Alfred Hitchcock, Georges Franju, Luis Buñuel, Mario Bava, Dario Argento, Fritz Lang, Michael Powell, Federico García Lorca … the list goes on forever. For a certain breed of filmgoer, The Skin I Live In will be a fantastic night at a carnival of shadowy, suffocating, unforgettable wonders. If you’re that type, you’re probably on the way to the movie theater right now. Pleasant dreams.