Western audiences might be more familiar with Banderas in director Robert Rodriguez’s body of work, but he is absolutely fantastic as Robert Ledgard. A man driven by his obsessions, Banderas’ performance is not showy, not the mad-scientist routine that could have been. Instead, Robert is a soft-spoken man who lets his presence do much of the talking, a man who exudes control, towering over his patient.
However, it’s Elena Anaya who is the standout as the mysterious Vera. While we are led to believe that her stay with Robert isn’t exactly voluntary–Vera’s suicide attempt happens in the first few minutes of the film–her relationship with Robert is complicated from the moment we first see her. Anaya’s beauty knows no bounds, accentuated by the skin-colored suit she wears which makes her lovely face stand out. While a victim of Robert’s experiments, Vera uses her own beauty and sex as a weapon. In one of the film’s earlier moments, Robert is seen peering into a video feed of Vera meditating, a quite literal metaphor of the phenomenon of anonymous male voyeurism as power. The relationship between the two is disturbing. When Vera stares back, piercing the male gaze and completely changing their dynamic, this relationship is clearly heading towards a bloody, violent end.
Almodovar is known for his eccentricities; his most acclaimed film, Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown (1988) is essentially a send-up of Spanish melodramas, with an absurdist tone that has come to define Almodovar’s body of work. The Skin I Live In is the complete tonal antithesis of his earlier, more feminine comedies; yet, some of Almodovar’s branded-weirdness come intact. The introduction of Robert’s tiger-suit-wearing, psychotic brother Zeca (Roberto Alamo) is the first of a series of completely absurd moments that constantly threaten to derail the entire film. Psychotic siblings, vengeance, and body modifications color the later-half of the film as The Skin I Live In roars into a sub-plot that doesn’t immediately appear to have anything to do with what we’ve seen thus far. Thankfully, the actors’ commitment towards the film keeps things grounded, even when things get a bit too crazy for the film’s own good.
Of course, that’s all before a major twist occurs in the final moments of the film. Completely turning on its head the film’s themes of gender conflict, it is memorable to say the least and is worth encountering unspoiled. Depending on whether at this point you’re with the film or not, the film’s twist could either be too much to handle or an example of great genre filmmaking.
The Skin I Live In is a bold entry in Almodovar’s filmography; and while he has since returned to light comedy with I’m So Excited (2013), it’s always exciting to see an accomplished director stray from his own established style, and hopefully Almodovar will continue to reinvent himself in future films.