In the strange and wondrous cinematic world of Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar, dualities — or maybe pluralities — rule. Never content to simply settle into a straight, linear story with clear moral codes, Almodóvar loves to spice things up with freewheeling mixtures of beauty and perversion, and glowing and gurgling unease beneath the surface. Here, heart-on-sleeve moments rub shoulders with mind-on-groin, somehow with artistic integrity in tow. This is the writer/director who made Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and All About My Mother after all, not to mention the satisfying emo-eros Volver.
With his latest adventure, The Skin I Live In — a strong entry in his filmography, if not one of his great ones — Almodóvar leans more unapologetically in the kinky pulp direction. Any overly explicit plot synopsis would be a criminal act, especially in this age of epidemic plot spoliation. Suffice it to say, this wild but steadily relayed tale involves Antonio Banderas as a deadly handsome mad doctor and predator (think The Collector meets Dead Ringers), a beautiful captive and guinea pig (Elena Anaya), reckless medical experiments, burn victims, kidnappings, rapists (who get more than their due comeuppance), and gender flip-flopping of a sneaky sort.
As usual in Almodóvar land, the “skin” of this film is seductive on its own terms; Alberto Iglesias’s gorgeous, cliché-free chamberesque musical score and José Luis Alcaine’s consistently ravishing cinematography both aid and counteract the perverseness of the storyline.
What plays out like an arty sci-fi film noir number, keeping us engrossed and also sometimes grossed-out, is just one part of the Almodóvar experiment this time out — one layer of skin the film lives in. On another level, The Skin I Live In has the markings of a grand and subversive filmic trick involving the manipulation of the sexual/gender dynamics in the narrative. Almodóvar knows how to trigger certain primal, erotic emotions in the audience, but through his chronology inversions, we get a skewed picture of who’s who, what goes where, and which direction the victimization is going. That element is almost this film’s most fascinating aspect.
We’ve been had, in other words, and in the most art-pulpy, Almodóvaresque way