Pedro Almodóvar has been keeping our brains working for the last few decades with a string of films that might use the heightened language of melodrama, but their brightly coloured scenery and complex human interactions have made him one of the most interesting filmmakers on the planet. One of the ingredients essential to his films’ success are the talented cast of actors he has collaborated with, perhaps most notably Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas. From his earliest films, such as Labyrinth of Passion. For the first time since Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down, Banderas and Almodóvar have once again reunited for a film that will cause the world “Hitchcockian” to be bandied about with alarming regularity.
The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito) is a difficult film to begin discussing without giving away those things that must be kept secret. We are introduced to a clever plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard (Banderas), who seemingly keeps the beautiful Vera Cruz (Elena Anaya) prisoner. Haunted by the death of his wife in a car crash and the loss of his daughter, Vera wears a skin-tight suit while Ledgard appears to have created a synthetic and impenetrable skin.
Equal parts Frankenstein and Vertigo, The Skin I Live In is an electrifying puzzle that dares you to unravel it. The basic premise immediately sets audiences asking the kind of questions that one would in a murder mystery, although with Almodóvar things are never quite that straightforward. What won’t surprise fans of the filmmaker is just how much humour there is in the film, not least of which is a man who breaks into the house wearing a tiger suit! Almodóvar uses the conventions of melodrama to take each moment to its logical extreme, and as the sexual and ultimately violent sequence plays out, there are mixed moments of eroticism, horror and comedy. It is far less subtle and refined that some of Almodóvar’s previous work, with the director wearing his Buñuel influences on his sleeve, but even this succeeds above 99% of other thrillers on the market.
Banderas, who hit the Hollywood ground running with Philadelphia, and is he certainly comfortable back in his native language and with the director who have him his start. Both a foreboding Dr. Frankenstein figure and a sympathetic one at various moments, this is his finest performance in at least the last decade. Elena Anaya, who has been making a steady name for herself over the last few years in Point Blank, Mesrine and Cairo Time, is captivating. When she is on-screen, it is impossible to take one’s eyes off her, and when she isn’t, there is a palpable absence.
Yet the real test with this kind of thriller is its re-watchability, and whether the final twists and turns prohibit a second viewing once glimpsed. Fortunately, The Skin I Live In is the kind of film that not only fascinates from moment to moment, but is so filled with fine details that repeat viewings are not only possible, but necessary.
The Skin I Live In is released in Australia on 26 December 2011 from Transmission.