The point is almost too obvious, but it is true: Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In is all surface. This dead-souled puzzle movie is like a transgender Frankenstein made by a cinema-studies professor, a set of outlandish visual tropes that’s constructed to be deconstructed (extra points for citing half a dozen other films). It’s not Almodóvar’s worst, and it has enough disfigurement, torture, and kink to put it over with the art-house crowd that wants its own The Human Centipede—it could have been called I Am Curious (Giallo). But it’s the only Almodóvar movie in which feeling, emotional or sexual, doesn’t suffuse the imagery and hold the ramshackle melodrama together.
The film opens with images of a beautiful young woman, Vera (Elena Anaya), doing yoga in a bodysuit so tight it’s like a second layer of you-know-what, as surveillance cameras—and, through them, eyes—fasten on her shapely butt. Elsewhere in Toledo, plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) holds forth to colleagues on the existential importance of skin replacement: “Our face identifies us,” he says, which I hope sounds more euphonious in the original Spanish. Ledgard, whose wife was burned in a car crash and later, having seen herself, jumped out a window, is obsessed with creating a new kind of skin, not just fireproof but near impenetrable. So if the face, indeed, identifies us, then what’s to stop him from putting his dead wife’s on someone else and getting her back?
Without even seeing The Skin I Live In, you can pick up its allusions to Vertigo, Eyes Without a Face, and Peeping Tom, but the convoluted storytelling is all Almodóvar’s. When Ledgard returns to his compound in the hills, we discover that Vera, with her plump lips and glowing skin, is both the doctor’s prisoner and his patient. After about an hour of digressions (some of it centering on a thug in a tiger costume), Almodóvar gets around to the flashbacks that orient us, until the movie stands revealed as a fairly standard revenge saga. (It’s based on a tight, feverish novella by the late crime writer Thierry Jonquet.) The bloody climax isn’t well done—the timing is flabby—but at least the narrative comes to a point. You can sit back and rearrange the pieces in your head.
Those pieces have a surface brilliance, especially the giant, obscenely fleshy paintings on Ledgard’s walls, which connect with the way in which he studies Vera’s derrière: She has, in effect, her own wing in his private Prado. The Skin I Live In seems meant as a meditation on seeing, on tension between our inner and outer lives—and perhaps our inner and outer gender identities, although that theme is never explored. It’s all at arm’s length: Vera practices yoga to find a place inside herself that can’t be touched by Ledgard, but the audience can’t go there with her. What you get is what you see.
I hope this isn’t a crossover moment for Almodóvar, when the goofy, passionate, self-dramatizing film geek becomes the pointy-headed formalist. His movies have always been rife with allusions, but there was a purity to them, as if the films this lonely young gay man consumed in the last years of Franco’s Spain had fused with his DNA and became a part of his emotional—as well as artistic—life. As his movies have become more polished, more “studied,” that purity has been questioned, never more than in his last film, the glamorous noir Broken Embraces. (I thought the self-conscious framing devices worked beautifully there, evoking the ways in which the lives of the lovers—both movie people—were disrupted, mediated by their own medium.) But The Skin I Live In is peculiarly impassive. Almodóvar apparently worked to deaden Banderas’s affect on the premise that evil can be measured by the absence of empathy, the absence of self-awareness—by absence. So Banderas is, effectively, absent, along with his director.
The sad irony is that Almodóvar’s films have always been an answer to other directors—from Hitchcock to Atom Egoyan to Steven Soderbergh—who connect our voyeuristic tendencies with a loss of feeling. Because Almodóvar could communicate his rapture in images, he made seeing believing. Has he lost his faith?