Billy Idol’s 1984 hit “Flesh for Fantasy” crept into my mind at one point during a screening of the new Pedro Almodóvar film, The Skin I Live In. Both song and movie are pop confections with S & M overtones. The Spanish director’s film, however, is a forceful combination of suspense yarn and bondage fantasy, with a number of white-knuckle sequences and a few truly harrowing moments. Those expecting a typical Almodóvar story—humorous plot and cheeky characters—are in for a surprise. The psychosexual thriller is a steely homage to Alfred Hitchcock (especially in his Vertigo days) and auteurs of more gruesome fare, like Brian de Palma (Carrie) and Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs). Almodóvar’s distinctive mark emerges in the particularly Almodóvarian way the twisted, gender-bending story and well-defined characters evolve.
Based on Mygale (1995), by French crime novelist Thierry Jonquet, the taut and tense script was co-authored by the director and his brother, producer Agustin Almodóvar. Through a series of flashbacks, the story falls into place around Dr. Robert Ledgard, a demented dermatologist and plastic surgeon extraordinaire, played by Antonio Banderas. After his wife’s gruesome death (her entire body was burned in a car crash), Ledgard re-creates her features on the face of a hapless victim, Vera Cruz (Elena Anaya), whom he has kidnapped for the purpose. Ledgard keeps Vera locked up for years in the basement of his mansion near Toledo, Spain, while he experiments with and perfects a type of artificial skin that can be grafted onto the body of another human being. Banderas plays the Dr. Frankenstein-like character with deadpan aplomb. The doctor’s only accomplice is Marilia, the nanny who raised him. Convincingly portrayed by Spanish screen veteran Marisa Paredes (star of five other Almodóvar films), the character lends credibility and grounding to this otherwise outlandish setup.
Highlighting the creepy atmosphere is a haunting score composed by Alberto Iglesias (brother of sculptor Cristina Iglesias), embellished during the film’s interlude with two Afro-Flamenco numbers performed by Spanish singer Concha Buika. There’s plenty to look at, too, with some gorgeous passages shot by Almodóvar’s stalwart cinematographer José Luis Alcaine, and the appropriately skin-tight costumes designed by Paco Delgado and Jean-Paul Gaultier.
As is clear during the course of the film—and as stated in Almodóvar’s press materials and the film’s credits—The Skin I Live In was inspired to a significant degree by Louise Bourgeois’s work, particularly the late sewn-fabric sculptures. A number of pieces by Bourgeois, who died last year while Almodóvar was working on this film, are highlighted. The sculptor’s figurative works in sewn cloth correspond to the pieces of artificial, laboratory-manufactured skin that Ledgard uses to recreate his wife’s features.
Working out of his typical genre but not his familiar set of concerns, Almodóvar touches on a broad range of issues. In the course of the drama, it’s not a chore to contemplate the increasingly dominant role of violence in society, concepts of memory and loss, the limits of extreme scientific investigation, the individual’s rights of privacy in the age of surveillance, sexual obsession, and, without revealing the film’s shocking twist, the meaning of sexual identity. At once disturbing and rewarding, The Skin I Live In is not a breakthrough film for Almodóvar, nor one of his best, but it promises an exciting transition.
The Skin I Live In directed by Pedro Almodóvar, 2011, 117 minutes, distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, opens Oct. 14.
Still courtesy Sony Classics.