The Skin I Live In represents Almodovar springing back to life with a work that overflows with provocative ideas, fantastical characters, and raw passions erupting into madness. The script is his first adaptation, taken from the 1984 novel Mygale by Thierry Jonquet, and it’s a perfect fit for his sensibilities: a rich meditation on, amongst other things, identity and power—dressed up in over-the-top ‘60s pulp novel/sci-fi/thriller style. Bataille by way of Sam Fuller.
Almodovar reunites with his 1980s muse Antonio Banderas, who plays Dr. Robert Ledgard—a ruthlessly driven psychopath reminiscent of Banderas’ character in Law of Desire. But what was a straightforward sexual/romantic drive in the earlier film is now a complex combination of professional ambition, lust for revenge, and megalomania—Ledgard isn’t content to find and conquer; he’s determined to play God and physically create his ideal partner. A prominent research scientist, he has secretly developed a fire-resistant artificial skin—“Gal,” named after his late wife who committed suicide after being horribly burned in an accident. Ledgard is holding a beautiful woman named Vera captive and under surveillance, displayed on TV monitors installed throughout his mansion, with the complicity of his aging housekeeper Marilia (Marisa Paredes). Vera is a human guinea pig whose skin Ledgard has surgically replaced against her will.
But Vera refuses to fully submit to her fate: when Ledgard buys her dresses she rips them up into little pieces and later uses them for her art—the film’s overarching theme is the characters’ relationship to their own skin, how they choose, or are forced to accept, the surface they present to the world. For example, when Marilia returns to Ledgard’s home after a long separation she’s eager to put on her uniform: “I like the uniform. It means we’re together again.” And when Marilia’s son Zeca (Roberto Alamo, in an explosive, funny-scary-real performance) turns up unexpectedly during Carnival, armed and violent and on the run from the cops, he’s dressed in a cheap tiger costume.
Though Almodovar doesn’t mention it in his liner notes, the thematic parallel with social media culture—the digital skin, the studied version of our identities mediated by Facebook, Twitter and the like—is unmistakable.
Zeca brings full-on anarchy into the tightly controlled household. Horny, vulgar, and desperate, he slowly runs his tongue over Vera’s image on a TV monitor before breaking into the room where she’s kept prisoner. He gets the best of the film’s many gloriously campy lines. “What can you give me besides a great fuck?” he asks her, before attempting to rape her, in a masterfully intense and carnal scene.
The Skin I Live In lurches back and forth in time, introducing Ledgard’s psychologically unstable daughter Norma, and Vicente, the teenage boy that thinks he understands her, but, tragically, only projects onto her a reflection of himself. “I’ll leave you naked,” he tells her at the end of a breathtaking attempted-teenage-sex scene. “You’re different. I’m different too.”
While the film’s template is the classic Hitchcock-style thriller, Almodovar turbo-charges it with a series of wild plot twists, and thrusts the genre into the beating heart of the contemporary world (it’s actually set in 2012). He feeds a modern understanding of the fundamental malleability of life forms, through biological engineering, into his re-imagining of the mad scientist movie, and questions whether individual identity is similarly malleable, whether it can be changed from the outside in.
While Almodovar has famously referenced and riffed on classic Hollywood movies throughout his career, The Skin I Live In actually inhabits the basic architecture and point of view of those films and plays out its fevered narrative with straight-faced conviction. It has the swaggering confidence of his early work, coupled with a mastery and control and thematic weight that keeps the suspension of disbelief going even as the story charges forward into the strange and sensational.
— Paul Sbrizzi