Following the death of his wife, surgeon Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) threw himself into his work and developed a new form of prosthetic skin, much tougher than regular human skin. Ledgard performs his experiments on Vera (Elena Anaya), a young woman held captive in his house, but as we learn more about her and why she’s there, the shocking truth behind Ledgard’s experiments are revealed.
It’s difficult, maybe impossible, to really identify what kind of film The Skin I Live In (La Piel Que Habito in its mother tongue) is. Without a doubt, it has its roots in films such as Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, but it uses so many different elements from other films, that it only really keeps a company of one. At times it feels like a body horror film, whereas it could be argued that it’s a love story deep down. It’s also part mad scientist film, whilst there are undoubtedly surrealist elements mixed in – guy dressed as a tiger, anyone?
Similarly, the film explores a wide range of themes, including control within relationships, coping with grief, sexuality and gender. There’s an awful lot going on but it never becomes overwhelming; these themes are laid out in front of you but are never shoved in your face at the expense of the story. When Vera watches a wildlife documentary showing a cheetah toying with its prey, it’s a clear metaphor for Ledgard and Vera’s relationship. Similarly, Ledgard also enjoys ‘straightening’ bonsai trees in his spare time, another sign that he loves to manipulate nature’s design. Both simple but very effectively portrayed.
As is the film’s aesthetic. It has a minimalist look about it that is stylishly shot, with almost every scene being perfectly framed. The cinematography is almost meticulous in its execution and the vibrant and clever use of colour sometimes make the whole thing feel like an art exhibition, which, again, appropriately fits the themes the film presents.
Narratively, The Skin I Live In is a very clever film. Early on we naturally make judgements about the characters and their actions, but through flashbacks we are shown what led them to be where they are in the present and this (will likely) drastically change our opinion of them. As such, it ends up being almost a completely different film to the one at the beginning. The ending is perhaps the film’s weakest moment as it is slightly predictable and a little underwhelming (it also should have ended about 20 seconds sooner), but it’s still a fitting denouement nonetheless.
Of director Pedro Almodovar’s other films, I have only seen Volver, but there seems to be something truly fantastical about his work. Both these films seem almost fairytale-esque, rooted in the impossible yet managing to feel grounded in reality. I can imagine his films not appealing to everyone, and The Skin I Live In isn’t for those who don’t completely buy into a film’s story. You definitely get out what you put into it. Fortunately, I was completely invested in it and am now eager to check out more of the director’s work.