With the elegantly perverse and twisted The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito), Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar returns to the gleefully trashy turf of his early films (Dark Habits, Labyrinth of Passion, What Have I Done to Deserve This?) with an artistic maturity and sophistication those older movies lacked and the wisdom and insight he’s learned from life (he’s 64 now). Right from the dateline title card that opens the picture (“Toledo 2012”), Almodovar lets you know something strange is afoot, and the first half of this emotionally cool, odd film thrusts you into a puzzle you can’t quite figure out. By the end of the movie, when all your questions have been answered, you’re left with the exhilarating high of having been manipulated by a gifted artist in a diabolically dark mood.
Who is Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), and why is he keeping the beautiful Vera (Elena Ayana) imprisoned in his mansion, spying on her via large flat-screen TVs that make her look like a painting? Why does Ledgard’s housemaid (Marisa Paredes) help the doctor by dutifully serving their prisoner her meals via a dumb waiter — and occasionally brings her boss pig blood for his experiments? Who is the man (Roberto Alamo) dressed in a tiger suit who shows up at their door, exuding menace and danger, and then proceeds to do such awful things?
Almodovar has always loved to experiment with chronology and non-linear narratives, sometimes allowing his stories to become so cluttered and complex that they teetered on the incomprehensible. Not this time, though. One of the chief pleasures of The Skin I Live In is the beautiful construction of the script, which Almodovar adapted from Thierry Jouquet’s novel Mygale with his brother Agustin. This is a dazzling feat of storytelling, one that slowly teases you with its mysteries, is replete with subtle clues and suggestions (everything in the movie is significant, even a slight camera pan that happens mid-film) and neatly ties up all its loose ends, some of them in an unexpectedly horrific manner.
The thoroughness of the script is critical, because without a solid foundation, The Skin I Live In might have collapsed into a pile of outrageous nonsense. But the movie holds together. Banderas, working with Almodovar for the first time since 1990’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, gives a deceptively subtle performance, imbuing Ledgard with the icy personality and obsessive nature of a sociopath. Even Ledgard’s medical colleagues disapprove of his experiments involving facial transplants and the creation of synthetic skin. But the possibly-mad doctor continues his secretive work in his home, and Banderas lets us see the wheels inside his head turning, hinting there is more driving Ledgard than a simple God complex.
Ayana’s role is even trickier, since we know very little about Vera other than what we see her do inside her well-appointed prison: practicing yoga, watching nature shows on TV and reading books. The actress doesn’t play Vera as a victim — she seems to be a willing participant in Ledgard’s strange experiments and even begs to become his lover — which only makes us more curious. How did Vera get there and what is her story?
The style of The Skin I Live In is as restrained as the performances: Almodovar has tamped down his trademark flamboyance, which might have been too much for this already bizarre story and saves it for critical moments that etch themselves in your head (blood has rarely looked redder than when it is spilled here.) This is not the sort of picture you leave behind at the theater, and the more you think about what the movie says about self-identity and how we define ourselves, the deeper and more provocative it becomes. The Skin I Live In could be described as Almodovar’s first horror film — not because it’s scary but because of the mood it invokes — but the themes it raises fold right into the filmmaker’s body of work. He’s just never explored them quite this way before.
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes, Jan Cornet, Roberto Alamo.
Director: Pedro Almodovar.
Screenwriters: Pedro Almodovar, Agustin Almodovar. Based on the novel “Mygale” by Thierry Jouquet.
Producers: Agustin Almodovar, Esther Garcia.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 117 minutes. In Spanish with English subtitles. Vulgar language, sexual situations, nudity, rape, violence, adult themes. Opens Friday Oct. 28 in Miami-Dade: South Beach, Coral Gables Art Cinema; in Broward: Gateway, Boynton Beach; in Palm Beach: Paradise, Palace, Shadowood, Delray.