The first thing to say about Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film, The Skin I Live In, is not to read too much about it before you see it. While less mindful critics will frivolously give away the film’s secrets without adequate warning, the decision made in this review is to skirt around the plot as much as is possible. Believe me, it’s for your own good, for the film’s dark twists and turns are about to become the worst-kept secrets since the ending of The Sixth Sense. Nevertheless, trust the ever-reliable Almodóvar to transform a story that, when unspooled and read aloud to your friends, sounds like something The Sun might cobble together during a slow news week, into a hilarious, thrilling, unexpectedly human and superbly realised film about the nature of revenge and identity.
While it’s an unmistakable Almodóvar production thanks to regal cinematography, lush direction and a darkly witty screenplay, The Skin I Live In marks a drastic thematic departure for the director, transposing his more subdued, dialogue-heavy style into a bombastic though still talkative horror thriller of literally unbelievable dimensions. What can be said of the plot is this; genius plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) is haunted by personal turmoil kickstarted with the death of his wife in a car accident. Spurred on by this, he manages to cultivate a skin which cannot be burned, and his guinea pig is a woman, Vera (Elena Anaya), who he holds captive in his vast, seemingly inescapable mansion.
The hints – if there are any – will stop there, because it’s a film best left cobwebbed and wrapped up until you leave the cinema, likely fascinated and definitely disturbed by what you have just seen. What’s important is that The Skin I Live In is not only the year’s best thriller thus far, but it’s the best film, full stop. Beginning with a sedate, enigmatic opening act which sets the dominoes up and rests the edifice in place, Almodóvar moves to strike in the latter two thirds through liberal yet crucial use of flashbacks and multiple perspectives to detail a thoroughly gripping and terrifying revenge story.
While in lesser hands a film like this could suffer with fatal tonal inconsistencies, Almodóvar lovingly embraces the volcanic melodrama he deals with here; the premise is completely silly yet at all times smartly self-aware, revelling in the oft-underappreciated joy of an out-there picture that knows exactly what it is. Yet the legendary Spanish director has in no way rested on his laurels; it is a film shot through the very same, human eye that defines each and every of his previous films, distinguished for the observational and authentic way in which they capture relationship dynamics. Even he might struggle to contain the essence of such a profoundly strange and uncharacteristic one-two, but fear not, for Almodóvar effortlessly and succinctly grabs hold of both the eerieness and the humanity, and doesn’t let go of either.
Impressively, for a film so endlessly invested in the notion of revenge, the audience is given plenty of ambiguity to play with, such that once the multiple points of view unveil, there is a table-flip of sorts and what was once felt is felt no longer. It is these nuances which make us sympathise for the characters; Almodóvar has managed to get at the very human essence of what could so easily have become a vaccum-sealed exercise in crass exploitation, while also crafting a creepy, often terse atmosphere which, even when venturing into the world outside of Robert’s home, confines the viewer and the characters to suffocating hospital rooms and claustrophobic parties of inescapable company.
Just as important as the top-notch script are the two lead performances, which are electric to say the least. Anaya in her highest-profile role to date is outstanding, tackling a challenging role gracefully, and she’s sure to see much more work after this, which is unmistakably her breakout turn. Banderas, meanwhile, delivers what is likely his best performance since hitting it big in Hollywood, a middle-finger both to those who presumed him to have little left to offer, and to those who speculated that his professional relationship with Almodóvar had soured as a result of his success. Suffice it to say, this is the freshest, bravest and most startling work that either has produced in years, if ever perhaps.
Gorgeously mounted and superbly acted, Pedro Almodóvar doesn’t make this bracingly intense, off-the-wall story an excuse to forsake the humanist interests that populate his best works. And this sits proudly among them.
The Skin I Live In is released in the U.K. tomorrow.