by James Hansen
There are many reasons to call Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In uncomfortable. Without going into major spoilers, the first could be the overall strangeness and darkness of the plot – Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), a celebrated scientist, has found a way to create a new, perfect skin, particularly burn victims, which can withstand all cuts and burns. Inside his enormous, secluded home, he runs a lab testing experiments on a beautiful patient, Vera Cruz (Elena Anaya), who lives in a locked room. She does yoga. Writing covers the walls. Soon, he is told to shut down the operation or else he face pressure from the scientific community. Obsessed, he retreats to his home to keep close watch over his patient as he finishes his project.
This may be strange enough, but it isn’t new for Almodovar whose stories have been decidedly zany and slightly deranged throughout his celebrated career. Ever the stylist, Almodovar’s has fallen into forms of self-parody throughout his 2000s film, employing sly winks to his own repertoire instead of using his plastic veneer and popping color palette to enhance his stories. In Skin, at first, it seems as if Almodovar may be back to his more productive ways. His hyper-modified world (glass doors, laboratories, contemporary domestic interiors, molecular modification) is benefited by the faux-glaze of Almodovar’s design. It echoes and deepens the space in which Skin’s narrative takes place. But. after a guy in a tiger outfit emerges for a rape scene that seems to be played for laughs, the expanding emotional tenor is completely upended and the stylistic balance abandoned for shock.
Moving midway through the film into a series of flashbacks to provide expository (and crucial) details of the scientist and his patient, Almodovar uses style as a means of revealing unexpected (not to mention unjustified) details while ignoring the turbulent physical and emotional complexities of Skin. There is a sense of pleasure in the swift melodramatic twists, but they aren’t fed through any kind of pathos. Almodovar piles on the shock without earning (or logically proposing) its moments or its catharsis. A stain is cast across Skin leaving Almodovar’s world in a state of confusion. Of course, melodrama pushes events to the nth degree, but, even as everything boils over, there is a reason for that boiling, an incident that caused the effect, and a justification for action. The Skin I Live In boils for the sake of boiling and its formula never coheres. The overall sense of emotional confusion isn’t a symptom of affective response, but rather of a filmmaker displaying his own uncertainty and discomfort in confronting the issues his film raises. This film is uncomfortable in its own skin – and it shows.