Pedro Almodovar has often paid homage to Hitchcock in his films, but in “The Skin I Live In,” his debt isn’t so much to Hitch as to Brian De Palma’s lurid copies of the master’s work. The result is like a 1950s horror movie done up in the style of Douglas Sirk, and definitely represents one of the Spanish director’s lesser efforts.
There will inevitably be comparisons between the movie, about a brilliant surgeon’s twisted revenge on the young man who molested his troubled daughter, leading to her suicide, and Georges Franju’s “Eyes Without a Face,” and they’re certainly legitimate. But there were plenty of fifties B-movies involving some mad scientist using human guinea pigs to recreate a lost wife, or daughter, or mistress, and so the plot is in outline a familiar one. What’s different about Almodovar’s treatment is that it goes way beyond what those earlier pictures did. “Skin” wants to raise issues of gender identity and the very nature of bodily existence. Unfortunately, it’s so goofy and over-the-top that whatever serious matters Almodovar might have had in mind dissipate in the morass of narrative weirdness and stylistic extravagance.
Banderas plays Dr. Robert Ledgard, who works at the cutting edge, as it were, of skin surgery—including facial transplants—from a laboratory and operating room in his palatial mansion. He lost his wife in a car crash years earlier, and his daughter (Bianca Suarez) is a psychologically troubled young woman he takes to a party where she’s attracted to a womanizing fellow named Vincente (Jan Cornet), who works in his mother’s clothing shop. Unfortunately, Vincente is high on drugs and puts the make on the girl. That leads to Ledgard’s decision to take revenge on Vincente in a fashion that involves the use of his professional expertise.
All of this is revealed in flashback, because Admodovar, working with Agustin Almodovar on the adaptation of a novel by Thierry Jonquet, chooses to tell his story in a fractured chronological style, shifting from present to past and back again repeatedly. So “The Skin I Live In” begins with Ledgard holding a mysterious (and incredibly athletic) young woman named Vera (Elena Anaya), clothed in a body stocking and face mask, prisoner in a room of his house, constantly watched by video cameras that reveal what she’s doing to the doctor and his Mrs. Danvers-like housekeeper Marila (Marisa Paredes). An especially strange early episode involves Marila’s ne’er-do-well son, who persuades her to let him into the house, where he proceeds to force himself on the captive woman while wearing a tiger costume donned to elude the police during Carnival.
It wouldn’t be fair to be too explicit about the twists the film takes from that opening. Suffice it to say that they involve a crazy decision to remold a person into an ideal that fulfills someone’s psychological—and sexual—needs. That recalls Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” somewhat. But the theme is taken much further here, and done up in a far more florid, baroque visual fashion. The result is closer to De Palma’s “Obsession,” and even more to that director’s more extreme Hitchcock imitations from later in his career. And though Almodovar might want to make a point about how close an ostentatiously heterosexual man actually is to homosexuality, it’s one that’s lost, or at least obscured, by the picture’s very last scene.
Of course, however ridiculous you find the plot of “The Skin I Live In”—and it’s every bit as loony as “Raising Cain” or “Body Double”—you can still revel, as one always could with De Palma’s pictures—in the director’s virtuosity and the exquisite work of art director Antxon Gomez and cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine. Editor Jose Salcedo, moreover, manages the time transitions with aplomb, and Alberto Iglesias contributes an atmospheric score with obvious Herrmannesque overtones.
As to the cast, Banderas works nicely against type as the obsessive surgeon, and though Anaya is used mostly for pure visual effect, she’s certainly a marvelous physical specimen. Stronger on the acting side are Paredes, who makes Marila a brooding, enigmatic presence, and Cornet, whose portrait of a callow young man who literally digs himself into a deep hole has an emotional resonance largely absent elsewhere in the film. The rest of the cast is okay without being outstanding.
“The Skin I Live In” isn’t uninteresting as an exercise in Almodovarian style and themes, but its farfetched narrative makes it a minor contribution to his canon.