When talking about Pedro Almodóvar recently I referenced Volver as his last film. It was only afterwards that I realised that his 2009 feature Broken Embraces had completely evaporated from my memory, which perhaps suggests that the director was in dire need of a change of pace. Broken Embraces felt like little more than a recycling of themes, motifs and ideas from his earlier work; in short, it felt tired, which is why The Skin I Live In feels like such a bracing surprise. The director's latest film is a liberal adaptation of Thierry Jonquet's novel Tarantula, and after a couple of female-centred pictures from Almodóvar, this is a film very much concerned with the male gaze and one man's obsessive control over his female subject.
The film takes place in Toledo in 2012, where Antonio Banderas, reuniting with Almodóvar for the first time in twenty years, plays renowned plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard, whose experiments drive the film's plot. In his remote mansion he holds a young woman captive, using her as his guinea pig while he attempts to develop a new type of synthetic skin, resistant to pain, bites and burns. Her name is Vera (Elena Anaya), and we first see her contorted into a yoga position, clad in a figure-hugging body stocking, in the sparse room that doubles as her prison cell. Only one other person knows she is there, Ledgard's Mother Marilia (Marisa Paredes), the Igor to his Dr. Frankenstein, who keeps an eye on Vera throughout the day, communicating with her over an intercom and supplying food via a dumb waiter. Who is Vera? What is her relationship to Ledgard? And for how long has she been trapped like this? All will eventually be revealed.
But it won't be revealed here. Ignorance is bliss when it comes to a film like The Skin I Live In, so I'm going to tread carefully around the film's narrative. This is Almodóvar's darkest and most psychologically twisted film for some time and he piles on plot developments that drive his story into increasingly disturbing territory and simultaneously test the boundaries of his audience's credulity. He leaps back and forth in time (acknowledging the excessive nature of his time-shifts with an exasperated-sounding "back to the present" caption near the end) to reveal the family trauma that has prompted Ledgard to play God, and he introduces supporting characters who will fit into the drama in unusual ways. There's Vicente (Jan Cornet), a young man infatuated with his lesbian co-worker and then there's Zeca (Roberto Álamo), who appears dressed in a full tiger outfit, which might seem ridiculous were it to occur in any other film.
The brilliance of Almodóvar's filmmaking here lies in his ability to keep us riveted even as the story grows increasingly absurd. His direction is impeccable throughout. His meticulously controlled mise-en-scène, combined with José Luis Alcaine's gleaming cinematography and a surging, Hitchcockian score from Alberto Iglesias, creates an intoxicating effect. His work seems so much more invigorated here than it was in Broken Embraces, effortlessly transfixing the viewer as the narrative corkscrews towards its climax. The director also seems to have revitalised Banderas, who gives his best performance in years as the tortured, unhinged scientist. Both he and Anaya expertly portray characters who withhold much of their true nature from us for the majority of the film's running time.
Ultimately, what The Skin I Live in lacks is an emotional undercurrent to complement the film's gorgeous presentation. The film feels clinical and sometimes bloodless, and while the revelations Almodóvar has in store for us are shocking and gripping, they don't really possess a deeper impact. The beauty of The Skin I Live In is only skin deep, but how can I complain when it has offered me one of the most surprising, aesthetically stimulating and exhilarating experiences I've had at the movies all year? Almodóvar's latest film might exist only on the surface, but what a surface it is.