It would be criminal to discuss the plot of Pedro Almodóvar’s new film, “The Skin I Live In,” in any linear or sensible fashion, for it would ruin the sick joke he’s setting us up for.
The best way to describe it is to lay out the unsettling images and metaphors Almodóvar fills the screen with for about an hour, after which, through assorted flashbacks, he gradually starts to link all the threads.
Vera (Elana Anaya), a waifish young woman in a skin-toned body suit, is being held captive in the expansive, chilly basement of a Spanish mansion presided over by the elderly Marilia (Marisa Paredes). Vera speaks with Marilia only by intercom and receives her food and drink via a dumbwaiter. On this particular morning, she alternately requests a makeup kit with her food—we don’t know why, yet—practices yoga moves, violently rips a set of dresses to shreds, and then tries to kill herself. Marilia’s son, Robert (Antonio Banderas), a brilliant surgeon who is performing transgenesis—against the will of his supervisors—on Vera, rescues her in time, then fixes up her sutures by applying a cut and insect bite-resistant skin.
The doctor, it seems, has a severe Frankenstein complex. For months, he’s been literally rebuilding Vera as a model of perfection, removing any blemishes, any weaknesses, anything human. He’s also envisioning Vera as a virtual replacement to his wife, whose body was burnt from head to toe in a car wreck.
As more mysteries about Robert’s past are unraveled, “The Skin I Live In” turns truly hallucinatory. There’s more fabric ripping and skin cutting. There’s surveillance-style footage of Vera’s feral behavior, as glimpsed through a king-sized digital television in Robert and Marilia’s home. There’s a rape scene in which the predator is dressed in a tiger suit. There’s a second biting-and-slapping rape scene in a courtyard, involving Robert’s daughter, Norma (Blanca Suárez) that may or may not be a dream, interspersed with shots of a jazz chanteuse (as if Almodóvar were channeling David Lynch in “Mulholland Drive.”)
In the most disturbing sequence, a clothing store worker (Jan Cornet), is kidnapped, shackled to a chair in a dungeon, starved and stripped (I think in that order).
And just in case you’re getting bored, there are guns and knives and dildos to come.
“The Skin I Live In” reunites Almodóvar with Banderas for the first time since the 1990 farce “Tie me up tie me down,” and it’s a captivatingly aloof role for the normally hot-blooded Banderas. Never before have this actor’s prowling eyes been shot to such hypnotic effect. Even while Almodóvar deliberately keeps the audience in the dark about whether Robert’s insane acts are motivated by lust, revenge or just pure sociopathic tendencies, Banderas lends empathy to even the most loathsome qualities of his character.
Banderas and Anaya make for an alluring on-screen combo. Anaya is a supple, commanding force; her performance is the finest combination of athleticism and derangement since Natalie Portman’s turn in “Black Swan.”
“The Skin I Live In,” based on Thierry Jonquet’s novel “Tarantula,” continues Almodóvar’s obsession with captivity, with powerlessness, with the sick and deranged ways damaged people act on loss, as explored in past outings such as “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” and “Talk to Her.” Cinematographer José Luis Alcaine’s camera is as fascinated with skin as the mad doctor—skin has never looked this lustrous—and Alberto Iglesias’ score, shifting between moody jazz and frantic, sawing violin, adds a lingering aura of menace to the proceedings.
But despite the high gloss, despite the overtones of tragedy, you can sense Almodóvar guffawing at the story’s outrageousness. This is the closest he has ever gotten to camp, and while it’s a kick to see him enjoying himself, you ultimately wish the film’s outcome were a bit less over-the-top.