Director Pedro Almodovar gravitates towards the world of horror in this tale of a mad scientist who keeps a woman captive while experimenting on a revolutionary new type of skin.
It appears to be the era of European-based mad scientists carrying out their nightmarish experiments on unassuming human guinea pigs. It was only recently that the sequel to Tom Six’s The Human Centipede arrived in UK theatres purporting to be even sicker than the original film which saw Dieter Laser’s Dr. Heiter surgically attaching three people together by their orifices. Now, Academy Award-winning director Pedro Almodovar throws his much more accomplished hat in the ring with Antonio Banderas in the role of the deranged but brilliant surgeon Dr. Robert Ledgard. It goes to show that with a master cinematic craftsman behind the camera, a film long-since severed from the entrails of sanity can be both beautifully executed, subversive and totally captivating without once threatening to expel the morning’s breakfast.
Set in Toledo, Spain, Dr. Robert Ledgard lives in a secluded retreat that has its own laboratory and operating theatre. When his wife is badly burned in a car crash he spends every day and night helping her recuperate. When she has the strength to walk again she catches her reflection in the window and is so horrified by her appearance, commits suicide by jumping from her bedroom balcony. Norma, their daughter, witnesses the death and requires psychiatric treatment. Distraught by his wife’s death and his daughter’s social anxiety, Ledgard devotes his time to developing a type of skin that could have saved his wife’s life. With his mother Marilia (Marisa Parades), they keep Vera (Elena Anaya) captive as Ledgard conducts his experiments under the radar of the local medical community who believe him to be a progressive genius.
Almodovar’s stylish film mixes a number of genres but maintains a sense of completeness. There’s the gothic horror trappings of the crazed doctor who lives in Dracula-like seclusion, secreted away in his palatial compound. But the director paints this contemporary setting with modern day gizmos – huge plasma screens and digital intercoms – alongside the perverse cleanliness of a surgeon who spares no effort in practical protocol despite a willingness to bend ethical rules. However, Almodovar keeps things understated. The Skin I Live In plays like veiled, grotesque parable with the tightly constructed suspense of Alfred Hitchcock in his prime.
And, like Hitchcock’s alluring male leads, notably the sophisticated, well-groomed Cary Grant, The Skin I Live In wouldn’t quite be the same without its debonair and handsome antagonist. Antonio Banderas is Dracula incanate, sexually enticing to the women in his life but devilishly destructive in his pursuit of eternal life. That his oeuvre captures the ambition of Dr. Frankenstein gives this character another level to his mad genius. Banderas is understated and quietly effective, his plight morally ambiguous but his will to succeed strangely enthralling. Almodovar, in cahoots with Banderas, brilliantly pushes and pulls the audience in directions we eventually think we couldn’t possibly go. Indeed, the film’s devastatingly effective twist is a shattering highlight but it doesn’t overpower the finer points of what is a fascinating, frightening and intelligently conceived thriller.
Review by Dan Stephens