Allow me to tell you a little about Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In. About its ingenuity and craftiness, its lush canvas and delicious originality. Allow me to tell you why The Skin I Live In not only ranks among the best films Almodóvar’s has made, but also among The Tree of Life and Drive as the best film released so far this year.
In The Skin I Live In, perception is everything. What starts as a simple story with a straight narrative slowly develops into something completely opposite. Basically, we think we know the kind of film we’re watching, until one jolting scene makes us realize that The Skin I Live In is something completely different than anything we could’ve expected.
But more on that later.
The film starts as most Almodóvar films do: immersed in its own world, with not the slightest urge of helping its viewer along. You have to catch up, with is ultimately half the fun. What’s different this time around is that on top of Almodóvar’s familiar gloss, we’re thrown a little David Lynchian mystique.
Robert (Antonio Banderas), a wildly successful surgeon, lives on his large estate with Marilia (Marias Paredes) his head housekeeper, and three other maids. Upstairs, out of sight and seemingly out of mind, sits Vera (Elena Anaya), a beautiful young woman who, we soon learn, has been held against her will in Robert’s home for many years. She’s given food when she’s hungry, TV when she’s bored, opium when she’s jonesing, a bed when she’s tired, and so on. Despite the facts that a.) her door is always locked, and b.) she doesn’t appear to mind that she’s there, Vera is monitored endlessly via security cameras. She never leaves and no one but Robert enters.
After several screen minutes (nearly the entire first act) of this routine, a man dressed as a tiger (stay with me here), shows up unexpectedly to Robert’s home. We learn that the tiger is Marilia’s long lost son, and since the good doctor is away, Marilia let’s her son into the home. Surprises are revealed, violence soon ensues, and a convincing backstory is delivered to help make sense of it all.
But this, mind you, isn’t the turning point.
Up until now (the first hour of the film, or so), The Skin I Live In has played like a mysterious romance. Like Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face mixed with Lynch’s Blue Velvet, topped with Almodóvar’s own Talk to Her. Then something happens. Something so dangerous and risky, that it could either make or break the film. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a title card appears: “Six Years Earlier.”
And this, I’m afraid, is where plot detail must cease. The Skin I Live In, you see, is one of the most ingeniously crafted suspense thrillers that I’ve seen in years. It’s unlike anything Almodóvar has done before, yet it feels warmly familiar. Once the film flashes back, it takes on a whole new depth, one that is intriguing, unique and all together extraordinary.
To say that his role as Robert is the best performance of Antonio Banderas’ career would be doing the actor a serious injustice. As Robert, Banderas isn’t simply good, he’s wholly revelatory. Although I’ve seen him beyond the safe fluff of Puss in Boots, Zorro, and El Mariachi, I’ve never seen him do anything like this. His Robert is a perfect match of sadist and lover; he’s cruel yet endearing, remorseful yet remorseless. I simply cannot speak highly enough of Banderas’ performance here.
Likewise the rest of the cast, namely Elena Anaya, who doesn’t appear to be doing much in the first act, but once more is learned, you realize just how much she actually is doing.
I’m an insatiable Pedro Almodóvar fan. His films, such as Live Flesh, All About My Mother, Talk to Her, Volver and Broken Embraces, aren’t just films, they’re scenery-chewing works of moving art. His movies, equal to any director current making pictures, actually feel alive. They pulsate with stunning beauty, frank sexuality and realistic violence.
It’s funny, sometime during The Skin I Live In, everything clicked into place. I realized that I was watching nothing more than an elaborate Spanish soap opera. One that, on paper, is laughably absurd. But in execution, I find extremely difficult to label as nothing less than masterful.
See it by any means necessary. A