The noted plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) believes that his radical experimentation in “transgenesis” could cure diseases and correct deformities. But what the doctor really wants to do is direct — to transform the looks and lives of the people in his care. Or in his cage. At home in a locked bedroom Robert keeps one of his patients, Vera (Elena Anaya). She has an almost unreal perfection of face and figure, of bones and skin tone. On his giant wall screen, Robert watches Vera, doing her Yoga exercises or simply sleeping in her white prison, as if she’s the star of a movie. A movie he made. His masterpiece.
The Skin I Live In, the Pedro Almodóvar film that has its world premiere today at Cannes, is no masterpiece — and he’s made a few, including the transcendent All About My Mother and Talk to Me — but it’s unmistakably Almodóvarian, for it touches on many motifs the 61-year-old auteur has pursued over an exemplary career now deep into its fourth decade. He loves spinning a web of convulsive emotions with which one character infects another; mixing a cocktail of coincidence and destiny; pushing melodrama so far it could turn into either tragedy or farce. All those elements wind through his latest labyrinth of passion, which reunites the director with Banderas, the international star he discovered in the ’80s.
So often — most recently in the 2009 Broken Embraces — Almodóvar has dramatized a man’s severe reaction to the loss of his beloved. Here, Robert has been devastated, quite possibly deranged, by two domestic cataclysms: the car crash that burnt and killed his wife Gal a decade before, and a sexual assault, by a hopped-up kid named Vicente (Jan Cornet), that drove his daughter Norma (Ana Meana) to insanity. Robert will find cutting ways to avenge that crime, and to bring his adored Gal back into his home. Like James Stewart’s lovesick griever in Vertigo, who alters the couture and coiffure of a sales clerk to make her resemble his dead dream girl, Robert has sculpted Vera into the living effigy of his late wife. Dr. Frankenstein can possess his spectacular monster bride.
As Vera, Anaya (Sex and Lucia, Van Helsing) is both unearthly and grounded, a sullen, sympathetic victim poised to be a heroine. The problem, oddly, is Banderas. In his early Almodóvar films, the actor often personified the spirit of sexual anarchy: a gay Muslim terrorist in Labyrinth of Passion, a filmmaker’s gay lover in Law of Desire and, in Matador, a bullfighter who gets sexual pleasure from killing. In Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, his last film with the director before The Skin I Live In, he played a psychiatric patient who kidnaps an ex-porn actress (Victoria Abril) while she’s shooting a horror movie about a mutilated masked man; the patient thinks that by keeping the actress confined she will learn to love him, and she does. There’s no reason Banderas, after two Hollywood decades, couldn’t do Robert justice; yet for a man whose mourning has turned to madness, he is strangely remote, lifeless, displaying neither rage nor poignancy. If Anaya is the heart at the center of the film, Banderas is the hole.
This is only the second Almodóvar films whose story he didn’t dream up; the other was the 1997 Live Flesh, from a Ruth Rendell novel. The Skin I Live In is based on Thierry Jonquet’s 1995 French novel Mygale, translated into English as Tarantula. Though the movie hews to Jonquet’s central story of a surgeon creating “a toy of flesh and blood,” Almodóvar has dropped one main character from the book and added a few others. Essentially, he has given Robert and Vicente new families, with the relationships often withheld, then blurted out. (No less than the agonized figures Spanish-language telenovelas, Almodóvar people are likely to exclaim, “He doesn’t know this, but I’m his mother!” or “You may not recognize me, but I’m your son!”) The biggest difference between novel and film is that one of them, we won’t say which, adheres to the Stockholm Syndrome thesis of Tie Me Up!, with the captive finally loyal to her jailer, while the other allows the prisoner a great escape and the cool dish of revenge.
What Mygale and The Skin I Love In share is a mission central to most movies: “defining essences in terms of surfaces,” as Andrew Sarris wrote. If the face is the window to the soul, then a perfect movie face suggests a beautiful soul. We are instructed from childhood in this hierarchy of handsomeness — taught to believe that the best-looking people are the heroes and heroines, and the actors with merely “interesting” faces are the villains and losers. Film directors and cinematographers, like plastic surgeons, are charged with bringing that beauty to the surface. Almodóvar helps Anaya, who’s criminally gorgeous on her own, locate an inner light in Vera that shines like ice or fire.
Content to tell its time-shifting story without soaring above its source, The Skin I Live In is only middling Pedro — which is to say better than 78% of other people’s films. But it has gleaming surfaces hiding the darkest habits and, in Anaya’s Vera, a screen beauty who reveals the private pain at her essence.