By Lisa Kennedy
The Denver Post
When Pedro Almodsvar's "The Skin I Live In" starts, gifted plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard already has lost his beautiful wife to an auto accident that left her badly burned and suicidal. When she died, he embarked on a quest to create a skin that was indestructible yet sensitive to the gentlest of caresses. For six years he's experimented on a human subject. Needless to say, the not-so-good, but quite handsome doctor long ago entered into a bioethic black hole.
Antonio Banderas takes time away from his role as a certain kitty who has ruled the box office to portray the surgeon who becomes a monster of control. The lovely Elena Anaya is Vera, the mysterious patient/prisoner Ledgard keeps hidden in his home.
A rich stitching together of horror and thriller remnants, "The Skin I Live In" evokes a number of cinematic masters, Alfred Hitchcock and Luis Buquel among them. Georges Franju's 1960 horror film, "Eyes Without a Face," about a mad scientist's desire to perform a face transplant, finds its place here, too.
Dr. Ledgard even has his own Igor in the person of his childhood caretaker. Wonderful Almodsvar regular Marisa Paredes portrays Marilia, who advises him and attempts to protect him from his growing feelings for Vera. None of these influences make "The Skin I Live In" any less Almodsvar. It's often exquisite; the cinematography and production design are voluptuous. It's just as often a bit absurd.
Nor does the fact that the director and his brother Agustin Almodsvar based their screenplay on Thierry Jonquet's 1995 novel "Mygale." Many of the director's obsessions remain in play in "The Skin I Live In." There's motherhood. Marilia treats Ledgard as a protective mother would. Her feelings for her own son, Zeca (Roberto Alamo), are more tenuous. We learn this when the lout shows up at Ledgard's doorstep in a carnival costume. When a young man goes missing, his mother is dogged in her belief he's alive. There's gender and power.
There's the dance between sex and sexuality -- straight, gay, all over the terrain. When the movie flashes back to six years earlier, we meet Vincente (Jan Cornet), the son of a dressmaker. A lesbian co-worker whom he hits on regularly tells him, not unkindly, that he may be gay. When he attempts to prove otherwise with Ledgard's beloved and emotionally vulnerable daughter, Norma (Blanca Suarez), his fate is forever entwine forever with Ledgard's.
Almodsvar is a director riveted by acts of seeing and voyeurism, so surveillance abounds. One night, Ledgard returns home and sits in front a sports-bar-size TV screen to watch Vera. She is uncannily aware of being watched; she seems to meet his gaze. Another time, as she lies on a couch, reading, Ledgard repositions himself to mimic her pose, offering an insight into the complex relationships between desire and identification, doctor and patient, jailer and prisoner.
Finally, there is the director's ongoing fascination with acts of rape. In "The Skin I Live In," one assault is treated as a vigorous coupling, brought on in part by a case of mistaken identity. The other is treated by Ledgard as a crime worthy of an extraordinary punishment.
Does the punishment fit the crime? Is the director's use of rape any more than a cinematic device?
These are questions one is left with -- and that's not an entirely satisfying feeling. Yet it's hard not to be drawn into the story, and even more, into the gorgeous storytelling.
'The Skin I Live In'
- Rating: R for disturbing violent content including sexual assault, strong sexuality, graphic nudity, drug use and language.
- Running time: 2 hours.
- Note: Part of Arts & Education Council's Independent Film Series.