After thirty years of campy comedy, passionate drama, luscious female characters and brightly coloured set design, it’s a joy to see that Pedro Almodóvar still manages to surprise the audience, and have fun while he’s at it. His latest film, The Skin I Live In (La Piel Que Habito), carries on from 2009’s neo-noir Broken Embraces in its cheeky co-option of genre tropes, although where that film was still sensual and perky, this new effort is decidedly perverse.
Long-time collaborator Antonio Banderas stars as Robert Ledgard, a brilliant doctor who specialises in reconstructive surgery. He also conducts revolutionary research in his secluded home, where he experiments on a young woman, Vera (Elena Anaya), whom he holds captive. Dressed in a body stocking, and under constant, voyeuristic surveillance, Vera holds the key to a major medical breakthrough, as her skin is extremely resistant to heat.
With its mild sci-fi concept, and compelling mystery, the film does not resemble a typical Almodóvar film, although the wonderfully over-dressed sets, where clinical, futuristic laboratories rub shoulders with rural Spanish architecture and eclectic, polystylist interiors, do recall the director’s visual flair, even if the vibrant colours have been exchanged for a more muted, stark palette.
Just as surprising is the director’s complete dedication to the genre, with energetic montage sequences of petri dishes and pipettes, as Robert gets to work conjuring up his artificial skin. Likewise, the intrigue builds as we watch Vera, isolated from the world just as her inhuman barrier distances her from human feeling, go about her daily routine of yoga, reading, and creating patchwork sculptures.
Odd flourishes crop up from time to time, such as Robert’s anachronistic predilection for smoking opium, or the appearance of overly dramatic intertitles. However, the director’s straight face is maintained. At least, that is until a man in a tiger costume (the son of Robert’s housekeeper) turns up, and not only disrupts the characters’ secluded existence, but the film’s own sense of sanity.
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