Pedro Almodóvar is back with a brand new installment of his sensuous quirky creations. "La Piel Que Habito" (The Skin I Live In, 2011) is sexy, intricate and intriguing.
Ever since he lost his wife to severe burns in the aftermath of a car crash, renowned plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) has obsessed over why fate predetermined his specialty: the creation of the perfect synthetic skin. Using cellular therapy, such skin would be better able to resist potential damages and might have saved the late Mrs. Ledgard’s life had it existed prior to her death.
Twelve years have elapsed since the tragic accident during which Ledgard has run increasingly complex experiments — with a chilling lack of scruples. The subject of these experiments is controversially human, a mysterious Vera (Elena Anaya) whom Ledgard expectedly guards in his own house like a best kept secret — and it seems for more than just ethical reasons.
Ledgard has enlisted the help of his old governess, Marilia (Marisa Paredes), to see to Vera’s needs while keeping a watchful eye on her. When the carefully constructed world Ledgard built around his "creation" begins to crumble, the true nature of the relationship between himself and Vera emerges.
Banderas sums up his character’s motivations in non-certain terms, "This is a very cold character, eerie in a certain way. I think he’s a fascist also, looking for strange ways of perfection. In a way also, he is in a kind of suicidal [sort] of mood because his life has been also hard. He lost his wife, he lost his daughter and now it is almost like (he must take) revenge [on] life itself. And he doesn’t care anymore so he is going to just do what he always dreamt to do which is no other thing than to become God."
From the now habitual theme of transgender relations that so often garners Almodóvar’s films, the auteur takes a disturbing step forward, this time crossing the line between species with transgenesis. The animal abounds in “La Piel Que Habito.” Most prominently, we watch Ledgard experiment with animal genes mixed with human ones in order to create the desired skin, which he baptizes after his departed wife, Gal. The doctor’s house and Vera’s safety/prison zone is broken into by a character dressed in leopard disguise. One of only three television channels that Vera is allowed to watch in her confinement is of the Animal Planet variety. With such clues, we sense that Almodóvar’s world has not yet ceased to mutate while the existential search for identity shines stronger than ever at its core.
Who better to reach this new milestone with than an actor whose career he helped launch and with whom Almodóvar has collaborated numerous times in the past? Banderas — who first worked with the director on "Laberinto de Pasiones" in 1982 — is back to his Spanish roots after a couple of decades cruising the Hollywood scene, bestowing to his character all the experience, grace and presence accumulated over the course of a near 30-year run in the limelight. Needless to say the effect is both enriching and unsettling.
The actor talks about his experience working once more with Almodóvar, "After 22 years when we didn’t work together, it’s an incredible satisfaction to go back to my roots, to work in Spanish, to work with a director who has been, is, part of my life. To be part of his universe…(I feel) recognition of certain things, certain rules and ways of doing things. And abandonment, just trying to abandon myself into the hands of somebody that I respect very much."
"La Piel Que Habito" is sophisticated to the extreme, a Kafkaesque nightmare vision of the Frankenstein story loosely adapted from Thierry Jonquet’s thriller novel "Tarantula."
Everything on the surface indicates a gleaming blissful existence, from a warm-colored art direction covered by the brightly-lit cinematography of José Luis Alcaine ("Volver"; "La Mala Educación") to a romantic score by Alberto Iglesias ("The Constant Gardener"; "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"); the film has all the appearance of a romantic comedy.
In contrast, the layers reveal themselves in smooth succession with an upending though perhaps anticipated twist halfway through the film, the real genius being that the twist itself is not the big reveal here but merely functions as another piece of the puzzling story that Almodóvar unravels with chilling coolness.
Perhaps due to the dryness of its scientific ploy, or counter-intuitively because it is too good a feat of craftsmanship on the part of the filmmaker that it becomes almost clinical, or then again maybe simply as a result of the lack of any loving relationship between the characters, "La Piel Que Habito" somehow fails to cause the emotional ripples that so customarily accompany the intensity of the typical Almodóvarian film.
Even with a captivating Banderas added to the mix, the film decidedly feels remote and emotionally inaccessible. It seems the viewer is given to observe and admire rather than interact, much like Ledgard in the story who contemplates his "experiment" through a looking glass while his feelings remain veiled in ambiguity.
"La Piel Que Habito" is an Almodóvar thriller that will delight with its complexity and near clinical precision. Film lovers will be tickled by its intelligent homage to cinema history, with notable references to films by Buñuel, Lang, Hitchcock or Franju. Watching Banderas lose himself in this terrifying role is the film’s best asset.