There's melodrama and there's camp, and then there's Pedro Almodovar. The Spanish auteur is one of modern cinema's best proponents of both melodrama and camp, often effortlessly melding the two as he also celebrates the beauty of women – very few male directors are so generous with their female characters and actors – and of cinema itself.
But even a master such as Almodovar doesn't always succeed in pulling it off, and his latest is a case in point. The Skin I Live In is a tale of revenge and obsession and as you'd expect, is rife with passion, murder, sex and more than a little kink. There's also one hell of a twist (which I won't reveal here) that will leave you flawed by its audacity but not necessarily moved by its implications.
Doctor Robert Legard (Antonio Banderas) is one of Spain's leading plastic surgeons. He lives in a villa on the outskirts of Toledo where a small staff are overseen by Marilia (Marisa Parides), while his attentions are focussed on his live-in patient, Vera (Elena Anaya): a young woman who is assisting in the surgeon's pursuit of creating the perfect artificial skin, impervious to insect bite, pain and burns.
One of the driving forces behind Robert's research, which is not sanctioned by the medical community, is the loss of his wife years earlier when she perished in a burning car. But another is the fate, six years earlier, of his teenage daughter, Norma (Blanca Suarez), which is revealed in extended flashback sequences.
Antonio Banderas, who came to Hollywood's attention through his early work with Almodovar, hasn't worked with the director since 1990's Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! And much like Penelope Cruz who, once scooped up by Hollywood has struggled to be utilized effectively (Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona the obvious exception), Banderas shines once more under his fellow Spaniard's direction, giving a quietly intense performance which trumps most anything he's done in Hollywood.
Elena Anaya impresses, too. Not only does she bare a passing resemblance to Almodovar muse, Peneleope Cruz (Vera amusingly gives herself that surname at one point), but she is also reminiscent of French actress Irene Jacob, best known for her work in the films of Polish director, Krystof Kieslowski. One of those films was The Double Life of Veronique, which is somewhat fitting (and perhaps deliberate?) given The Skin I Live In's themes of doubles.
The film makes a more obvious and intentional nod to Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo – the transforming of one woman into the image of another – and owes more than a little debt to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, but the intent and execution of The Skin I Live In (based on the novel, Mygale, by Thierry Jonquet) is very much Almodovar's.
And sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn't. But one has to admire the gusto with which the director goes about his art, and no doubt admirers of his work will be more enamored than not. One thing's for sure, you won't see anything like The Skin I Live In this Christmas.