By Jacob Mertens.
The iconic image of Dr. Frankenstein hunched over a slab of metal, peering into the glassy eyes of his patch-work creation, cannot be easily forgotten when watching Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In. In its place, Antonio Banderas, playing Dr. Robert Ledgard, watches his own mysterious creation pace the floors of a bare white room, separated by a camera feed and an engulfing television screen. Ledgard attempts to establish distance from the beautiful Vera Cruz, played by Elena Anaya, but he cannot. He has taken the suicidal beauty and locked her away in his home, crafting her body to withstand flames, reassembling every aspect of her physical identity and in so doing he has made her into the image of his late wife.
Almodóvar’s new iteration on the mad scientist film skitters on the edge of a faulty moral compass, its melodrama benefiting from a lurid color palette and nuanced acting. Banderas and Almodóvar reunite for the first time since Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990), and both men have matured during their 22 year separation. Almodóvar has created a film in which the audience cannot help but align themselves with the plight of a morally reprehensible character, mollified by Banderas’ perceived vulnerability. When Ledgard’s house maid speaks of his madness to Vera, the audience must struggle to find it in him. Ledgard restrains himself from outright adoration for Vera, admiring not only the ghost of his wife that resurfaces in her features but also her own inner strength. Once more, Ledgard had lost his wife after she was unrecognizably burned in a violent fire and so his experiments originate from a perverted desire to relieve a source of grief in his life.
Almodóvar also manipulates the viewer by suggesting Vera’s own feelings towards Ledgard and her captivity. Vera wears a skin tight, beige body suit that protects her skin, a symbol of Ledgard’s admiration for his creation. She moves naturally in the body suit, pacing the large room she is kept in with the grace of ballet dancer, exuding comfort and ease with her surroundings and her new body. Ledgard later bolsters this impression of beauty and grace, allowing himself a moment of weakness as he marvels at the softness of her skin. The film soothes the base intentions of Ledgard’s experiment by the result of its delicate perfection. Additionally, Vera gazes into the cameras in the room with a raw seductiveness; she seeks her freedom from captivity only to take her place at Ledgard’s side, saying as much to him as she admits to intuiting his desire for her.
As the film moves on, Ledgard must decide whether to kill Vera and hide his abhorrent experiment from the world or to allow himself to be consumed by his longing. Almodóvar complicates this decision by reintroducing the man largely responsible for his wife’s death, who now sets his malicious sights on Vera. This man, Zeca (Roberto Álamo), binds and gags Ledgard’s housemaid to a chair and breaks into Vera’s room, believing her to be Ledgard’s surgically reconstructed wife. Having had a tumultuous relationship with the dead woman, he forces himself on Vera in a brutal scene of sexual assault. Ledgard returns, kills the man in mid-act and briefly holds the gun on Vera herself. However, he cannot bring himself to kill her. In this moment, Ledgard’s feelings for Vera overtake him; he is lost in his need to be with her. He admits to his love for her as they embrace, the gun now cast aside.
The genius of this moment lies in its symmetry. Ledgard could not protect his wife from Zeca, but feels the tragedy of the past mended by his ability to protect Vera. Considering that the impetus for his experiment stemmed from the need to turn his wife’s death into significance, the tangible correction of Zeca’s savagery, brought about by his death, helps Ledgard escape his own troubled past. Almodóvar’s film integrates intimate pathos and histrionic plot events with a staggering mastery that recalls his greatest efforts as a director, helping to both entertain and move the audience with a simple gesture. Consequently, the film manages to satisfy both the base fascinations of the audience and a longing for depth and authenticity, emulating the appeal of Shakespearean play.
Keep in mind, though, that every plot event detailed in this review happens in the first act of the film. To say much more about the narrative would do the reader a disservice. However, allow me to intimate that the full context of Vera and Ledgard’s relationship slowly reveals itself over time, and her affection for him must be resolved by odd flashbacks. Within this process lies the film’s true appeal, because whether or not The Skin I Live In begins as Banderas film, with viewers intrigued by his tragic character, Almodóvar shifts the focus to Vera seamlessly. When this happens, a fascinating depiction of human insight reveals itself as we move from creator to creation, constituting one of the most complicated and rewarding films I have seen in a long while.
Jacob Mertens is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.