Wow. For just over a half of The Skin I Live In, the film seems to be an above average psychological horror flick, with an added dashing of verve and suaveness from the pairing of Antonio Banderas and Pedro Almodovar. But then the reasons are gloriously revealed in the form of mutual dreams of why Banderas’s surgeon Robert Ledgard has been keeping Vera (Elena Anaya) locked up as a human guinea pig for him to develop his new ‘super-skin’. To give away any more would be a crime, but suffice to say…wow.
Riffing from the likes of Eyes Without A Face, Vertigo and even The Secret In Their Eyes, the first Banderas-Almodovar collaboration since Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is a feature which sees Almodovar dip his toes into the horror genre, with some reservations. He seems reluctant to dig further into the process of Ledgard’s surgery which would make the audience squirm, instead focusing on the more technical aspects, such as the meticulous preparation. In a way, this is more terrifying, as it enhances the feeling that Ledgard is a skilled man who knows exactly what he’s doing, and he has some serious reasons for using Vera as his canvas. Adding to the feeling of unease are the two symbiotic performances of Banderas and Anaya. The former is a humanised demon, sinister and charming whilst the latter is equally fragile, frail and sexually empowering. The pair’s ambiguous relationship heightens the intrigue, as just when we feel we work out what is the connection, a spanner is thrown to the works.
Almodovar’s direction needs no introduction, yet it’s still refreshing to see him on top of his game in 2011. Whilst The Skin I Live In is obviously derivative, from the examples above and more so, don’t let that fool you into thinking that this is a tribute to its influences. It’s its own beast, with a series of haunting images which are likely to be engrained in the audience’s memories for a long time after, the sights ranging from a man dressed as a tiger entering the threshold to the should-be iconic vision of Ledgard standing in front of an oversized monitor displaying Vera’s face, looking forlorn and focused at the same time.
If it wasn’t for Julia’s Eyes, The Skin I Live In would be the thriller of the year. It’s a film that demands to be seen and unlike the likes of Black Swan, it’s a psychological horror which actually gets into your psyche and makes you leave the cinema feeling extremely uneasy. It’s a film beyond criticism, with the only minor quibble being that the role of Ledgard’s servant, Marilia (Marisa Paredes) isn’t fleshed out a bit more, particularly her reasons for her devotion to Ledgard and the treatment of Vera. Captivating until the very last moment, The Skin I Live In is evidence of a genius on top of his game.