Almodovar and Banderas Reunite

Spanish maestro Pedro Almodovar reunites with Antonio Banderas for the first time in 21 years for “The Skin I Live In,” a thriller about spiritual imprisonment and identity. His latest raises provocative questions but lacks the tension of a true thriller.

 

 

Banderas play Dr. Ledgard, a brilliant cosmetic surgeon who lost his wife years earlier in a car accident. At the time he’d been working on an experimental skin substitute which, had it been perfected, might have saved her life.

Years later, he is in the final phases of perfecting his invention. All he needs is a test subject. He kidnaps Vincente (Jan Cornet), son of a dress shop owner, and surgically replaces his flesh piece by piece until Vincente becomes Vera, a beautiful young woman.

 

 

The parallels here run the gamut from “Pygmalion” to Georges Franju’s French classic, “Eyes Without A Face.” Almodovar strenuously works themes of skin as a prison while he ponders the roots of identity in his new movie. Vincente labors in a dress shop, smoothing fabric on a mannequin just as Dr. Ledgard later runs his fingers over Vincente’s skin as he turns him into Vera.

The skin becomes a beautiful prison housing Vincente’s identity, just as the castle they inhabit, El Cigarral, is a beautiful prison housing Vincente himself. With such strong themes, Almodovar creates a singular movie but a poorly-paced thriller.

Banderas seldom plays the villain but has always been a versatile actor with a range that seems unexplored in his studio work. Here, he is smart, charismatic and alluring as the mad Dr. Ledgard, a protagonist in the vein of Norman Bates or Mark Lewis from the Powell-Pressburger classic, “Peeping Tom.”

 

 

We root for him even as he does unspeakable things but this isn’t achieved with an ironic knowing wink to the audience. Instead, Almodovar gives us a sympathetic protagonist, wounded by the loss of his wife and the suicide of his mentally-ill daughter. He is a brilliant man working on the cutting edge of his field. It’s hard not to root for him.

As for his invention, Vera is more beautiful and alluring than Vincente could ever hope to be. That shouldn’t matter but somehow it does. As horrifying as it is, there’s a feeling that Vincente has somehow improved in becoming Vera.

 

 

Almodovar has said he’s not sure what genre “The Skin I Live In” fits. This is part of what make his movie so original, but it is also the reason for its atonality. There are over-the-top comedic moments, such as a home invasion by a fat man in a tiger costume, which look like something from one of his comedies. But mainly the movie’s tone matches early thrillers like “Matador,” (also starring Banderas) or more recently, “Bad Education.”

Although not one of his best movies, a near miss like “The Skin I Live In” from a talent as large as Almodovar still warrants a look.

 

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