Pedro Almodovar’s latest offering is a bizarre, complex thriller which could also be the first of its kind for the talented Spanish filmmaker. Almodovar essentially combines the soap operatic elements of his earlier films like “Broken Embraces” replete with characters with dark secrets, tragedies of the past that can’t let go, severed blood ties, trauma, etc with a touch of Michael Crichton-ish medical thriller elements! Nonetheless, the outcome is a surprisingly original film to grace this reviewer’s movie watch-list in a long, long time!
In Toledo, Spain, Plastic surgeon Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) has had a brilliant breakthrough in creating an artificial skin tougher than normal human skin. It is the kind of skin that is resistant to mosquito bites and burns. We learn later, that an incident of the past has made this research of his almost an obsession for him. While Ledgard claims that he has been experimenting with athymic mice, it becomes clear that his guinea pig is actually human, a beautiful girl, Vera (Elena Anaya) who has been confined to a private chamber in his secluded estate where he resides with his elderly maid servant, Marilia (Marisa Paredes) who has been with the Ledgards since Robert was a child. Vera is monitored through various Closed-circuit TVs by Robert and it seems that she has been there for a long time now. She is provided food and supplies through a dumbwaiter but is never allowed out of her room. This place also serves as a center for research and operations hence there is limited or no access to outsiders, barring some of Robert’s professional colleagues for specified purposes only. Life goes on and this status quo is disturbed one day, when Marilia’s long estranged son Zeca (Roberto Alamo) suddenly shows up at their door ….
Loosely based on Thierry Jonquet’s novel, “Tarantula”, Almodovar’s screenplay is magnificent in the manner in which he slowly unfolds the various layers of his twisted story, divulging information to his audiences only as required, in a carefully constructed non-linear narrative. What starts out like a conventional thriller in the first half, gradually melds into a nuanced drama laced with tragedy and subtle emotions. Instead of relying on jump twist endings that sometimes seem forced, Almodovar, in the film’s runtime of 120 minutes, progressively ‘builds’ the story, by in fact, peeling the ‘skin’ off the package and unraveling the mystery within, little by little. In some back stories and subplots we are introduced to some more characters and it is at this point that the film actually gets its Pedro Almodovar feel! One may feel that the director is going off-track with these random introductions, but do not be fooled, for trust Almodovar to stay focused and not digress from the plot at any cost! There are absolutely no wasted moments or scenes as ultimately it all falls into place beautifully! Not all the characters are fully developed but those who do matter the most are, to a considerable extent; if not through elaborately written scenes, definitely through some back stories provided in flashback monologues.
“The Skin I Live in” is also an actors’ film. Antonio Banderas in a never before seen avatar is a revelation; so amazing is his presence, he pulls off a challenging lead role with finesse as the dynamics of his character are revealed to the audience as the story moves forward. Ditto for Elena Anaya who has already established her status as a solid actress in the Spanish film world. It’s a spectacular performance, the greatness of which is more evident in the latter half of the film. The supporting actors are not far behind, with some noteworthy performances by actors Blanca Suarez, Jan Cornet and Almodovar regular Marisa Paredes as the loyal maid servant Marilia, tormented by a dark secret of her own!
“The Skin I Live In” is a riveting thriller…an almost Shakespearean tragedy with a macabre twist. Pedro Almodovar made one of the finest films of his career and also one of the best films of 2011. It is likely to stay in your mind for a long time after it is over… the kind of film that can get under your ‘skin’... literally!