From post-Franco-era bad boy to art-house old-faithful, Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar has made films that are outrageous and kinky entertainment, and at the same time good-looking and not offensive to the intellect. “The Skin I Live In,” his new melodrama, proves no exception.
But lacking his trademark ebullience and flamboyance and instead offering less-expressive calculated creepiness, this mad-scientist tale, a rare Almodóvar misfire, isn’t emotionally compelling.
Co-written with his brother, Agustin Almodóvar, and based on a novel by Thierry Jonquet, the story marks a shift into horror terrain for Almodóvar, while containing established ingredients from his recipe book: sex, past tragedy, revenge, gender identity and cool fashion.
Also familiar is the star, Antonio Banderas, working with Almodóvar for the first time since “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” a differently-tempered story of kidnapping and obsession.
Suggesting, to oversimplify, a mix of “Vertigo” and “Frankenstein,” the drama centers on Robert Legard (Banderas), a renowned plastic surgeon with a secret laboratory inside his Toledo mansion. There, Robert, who lost his wife after a fiery crash, has created a flame-resistant synthetic skin. His guinea pig, Vera (Elena Anaya), is a young woman he’s holding captive.
Clad in a body stocking and watched by Robert on a surveillance screen, Vera positions herself in yoga poses and receives meals via a dumbwaiter operated by Robert’s collaborating housekeeper, Marilia (Marisa Paredes).
Just who Vera is, and why she eerily resembles Robert’s dead wife, is slowly revealed after Marilia’s tiger-costume-wearing armed-robber son (Roberto Alamo) barges in and triggers backstories.
Some involve Robert’s teenage daughter (Blanca Suarez) and a pill-popping dressmaker’s son (Jan Cornet). As he’s done previously, Almodóvar maneuvers skillfully through a convoluted plot, unwrapping secrets layer by layer. He’s put lots of thought into Robert’s obsession with Vera. He also has designed a visual treat, complete with everything from a scissors-and-fabric frenzy to an image of bright-red blood cells.
But film lacks deeper emotional bang. While consistently intriguing and sometimes shocking, it is often frustratingly unmoving as it craftily spins its tale of pain and perversity.
A primary problem is Almodóvar’s decision to suppress the characters’ emotional current — an approach he has said is intended to depict the “total lack of feelings” that psychopaths such as Robert display.
Unfortunately, it undermines the ability of Banderas, whom Almodóvar instructed to “empty his face of expression,” to create a stirring character.
Anaya’s Vera, meanwhile, remains too mysterious; like the skin she’s sporting, she’s all surfaces.
Almodóvar regular Paredes, conversely, brings dimension to her secret-spilling role, while Alberto Iglesias’ music, featuring a crazed violin, underscores the madness.
Starring Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes, Jan Cornet
Written by Pedro Almodóvar, Augustín Almodóvar
Directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Running time 1 hour 57 minutes