The problem with Pedro Almodóvar's "The Skin I Live In" is one of expectation. What we have come to want from him are hues of tomato, fire engine, blood. What he gives us are shades of cream, eggshell, off-white.
Impeccable, at times even clinical, the director's 18th feature seamlessly merges form and function. The mystery concerns an obsessive surgeon (Antonio Banderas) and his beautiful captive (Elena Anaya), engaged in an unsettling pas de deux in the sterile, empty rooms of his modern Toledo manse. He watches her with longing via closed-circuit television; she reads, does yoga, wears a full-body stocking, and tears strips of sackcloth to make grotesque miniature busts.
The film's style, if surprising for Almodóvar — he's replaced his normal melodrama and wry humor with a tone that edges up to horror — neatly matches the thematic concern with masks and mutations, with surgical and perhaps spiritual attempts at rebirth. "Our face identifies us," the surgeon intones near the beginning of the film, and the tenuousness of even this most central element of identity reverberates through all of the intrigue that follows. "I breathe. I know I breathe," the captive writes over and over on the wall of her cell. I think, therefore I am.
It wouldn't be fair to judge the auteur for not adhering to what critics have defined as his "style," yet unlike nearly all of his prior movies, the first hour of "The Skin I Live In" left me utterly cold. Surely, reams and reams of dissertations could be written about the film's weighty layers of gender and sexual identity: it is nothing if not an intelligent, finely observed piece of work. But fodder for academic analysis does not a great film make, and it takes a return to what Almodóvar does best to build up the head of steam that carries the film through its masterful second half.
The plaintive, painful, seething wedding sequence, at the heart of an extended flashback that ruptured every conclusion I'd drawn as to what this film was about, is unafraid to let things boil over. A singer with a deep, piercing voice paints the backdrop of color, allowing the high control of the first hour to spin off into the dark corners of a lush garden. It's a messier kind of cinema, but it moves forward at a gallop, a reminder of what seems to be the director's own credo. I feel, therefore I am.
The brazen use of song is, in fact, one of Almodóvar's hallmarks — brief interludes of pure performance, his version of soliloquy. Maybe the best of these is a rendition of the eponymous song from "Volver" (see video below). Raimunda (Penelope Cruz), has taken over a local restaurant while the owner is away in Barcelona and started catering for a movie crew shooting outside of town. Encouraged by her daughter (Yohana Cobo) and sister (Lola Dueñas) after letting loose a few strains of a childhood song, she performs for the crowd.
It's a fully felt, spontaneous moment, mere minutes in a film with a surplus of such tender glimpses. But it cements "Volver" (which means "return," or "coming back") as one of the director's best, no less intelligently crafted than "The Skin I Live In" for being funny, sweet, and more than a little absurd. For it's not only ghosts and family history that come back to haunt — and eventually redeem — the women in this small country town; Raimunda's making a comeback of sorts, too, from an unhappy marriage and a career of odd jobs to something like her calling.
In this dusty locale where the East wind, cancer, old age, and superstition conspire to drive everyone crazy, there's barely a man in sight. Who needs 'em, anyway? This multigenerational, multidimensional "family" of women tied by love, tears, and a network of favors gets along just fine. The impromptu restaurateur; the hairdresser; the whore: they have not been given much to work with — before the men leave, they seem always to drink the money first — but they've come together to make the best of it.
Almodóvar concocts a heady brew for these strong characters to swim in, roiling with wildfire, secrets, and lies, but these all just add color — tomato, fire engine, and blood, as it happens — to the real story, the impressively humane portrait of people bearing up in bad circumstances and helping each other out, no questions asked.