The wonderful thing about science fiction is that there’s no guiding rule which demands just how ahead of itself, and science, it needs to go. To call Pedro Almodóvar a master of his craft ignores a lot of obsessive drooling for a magnificent portfolio of films. When he revealed that he was working on something that could be described as sci-fi, it titillated the minds of cinephiles. What would the man’s overall approach to genre be? The Skin I Live In is a hypnotizing feat, a contemporary reflection of The Brain That Wouldn’t Die resulting in a Frankenstein tale making sweet, Spanish love to body politics. Almodóvar is gently taking us by the hand down and leading us down a trail of science gone mad, and it feels as classically minded as it does completely original.
Plastic surgeon and ingenious doctor Robert Ledgard (played by an actually acting Antonia Bandaras) has a tragic and sordid past. Fate has not been kind to him and his once gorgeous family. These dark shadows that loom over him, the love ripped from his heart fuels his drive to create a synthetic skin, one tougher and more resilient to disease. A creation that could turn his life around. The scientific community as a whole is uncertain about his methods, and they would stop him outright if they knew he was actually developing the skin by use of a captive, human test subject – the mysterious Vera (Elena Anaya), who he keeps locked up at luxurious Toledo estate. Vera and Robert’s relationship is as rocky as you’d imagine a captive/captor bond to be, though that all changes when a vile thief with sordid relations to Ledgard violates Vera in the manor, changing Robert’s perspective and obsession entirely.
There’s something unwillingly gorgeous about the film. It opens with a sunlit vista and a big, bold marquee style font that glows on the screen. Between the dramatically grandiose Spanish locations, the beautiful people and the flashback savvy narrative, the way Skin dances around feels very operatic. At first it feels like Almodóvar is telling you too much, that there isn’t any more left to tell or that this is some flag of explanation, but no, there’s always more and it always gets more twisted. But even at its most twisted, it never becomes depraved, and even at its most science fictional it still feels utterly anchored in reality. For someone who’s just stepping into genre, Almodóvar is far better at balancing these elements than many others, making Skin a film that is so inviting to be engaged with, it answers all your questions in a way that feels like you had actually asked them aloud.
It’s delightful to see Banderas act for a director who respects his talents. For years we’ve seen him subjected to Hispanic-themed action flicks and kids movies; suddenly seeing his eyes grow deep and his impressively handsome face coil up with madness makes it all the more striking. Anaya is perfectly eerie as Vera as well, playing and stretching around her quarters like the pixie trapped in a dark wizard’s glass piece. The synchronicity between Banderas’ obsession and Anaya’s aloof resilience is uncanny, and creates the frictional plates that will quake come the end.
The Skin I Live In is a film that’s provocative and intelligent without ever once becoming pretentious. All the brilliant ideas about love, sex, gender, body, science and morality are grown out of the drama embedded in the story, and not a thin outstretched device reaching out to try to prove a point. It’s a science fiction and it’s a horror, but it’s never surreal, schlocky or terrifying. The way Almodóvar faces genre is casually. His sensibilities as a filmmaker will startle you outright. It’s very rare that a genre film is made with such astounding delicacy, but that’s just the kind of skin Almodóvar is in.