By Eric Kohn | Indiewire October 14, 2011 at 1:26AM
EDITOR'S NOTE: This review was originally published during the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. "The Skin I Live In" opens in limited release this weekend.
Based on Thierry Jonque's novel "Tarantula," Pedro Almodóvar's "The Skin I Live In" is a medical revenge thriller about genre identity. It's also a meandering, tonally confused work. Teaming with Antonio Banderas for the first time in two decades and working with genre elements he hasn't touched in nearly as long, the Spanish auteur has a good time with outrageous plot twists and offbeat sexual intrigue. However, Almodóvar appears unmotivated to even try holding it all together. Instead, he lets the mess pile up and enjoys it.
Likewise, Banderas clearly relishes the opportunity to play a dark antihero after years of less inspired roles. Playing crazed plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard, the actor brings an unlikely swagger to the mad scientist mold and makes it work. Ledgard takes a strong interest in transgenic therapy and uses pig genes to create impenetrable human skin, much to the chagrin of his peers. (Legard's rebuttal: "We interfere with everything around us.")
However, Almodovar quickly interferes with this man-playing-god premise by dawdling in the mystery of the strange woman the doctor keeps captive in his home. That would be the solemn Vera (Elena Anaya), whose skin stays in top-notch shape thanks to the doctor's care. Rounding out the main cast, Ledgard is assisted in keeping Vera in check by his housemaid Marilia (Maris Paredes), whose history with Ledgard goes back to his childhood.
The precise relationship between these characters is the movie's greatest conceit. While Almodóvar takes a long time revealing the mystery, the outcome doesn't justify the build-up. Hitchcock would have turned this material into a credible thriller and Cronenberg might emphasize its visceral qualities, but Almodóvar never brings any single ingredient into focus. With the exception of the white face mask that Banderas forces on Vera while making her go through a major physical transition, "Skin" lacks the sensationalistic imagery one might expect from Almodóvar. Cinematographer José Luis Alcaine keeps the images loud and expressionistic, but there's not much to look at.
Still, the director does string together a strangely appealing atmosphere. It's one that will be familiar to his fans for its extreme melodramatic overstatement and surrealistic twists brought to life with intentionally ludicrous delivery. The plot begins in 2012, flashes back six years and then informs us with a casual title card that we're "back in the present." Echoing his early days (I was reminded at times of "Matador," a far superior Banderas collaboration), Almodóvar creates the lingering possibility that anything can happen, with no character's life being sacred enough to survive the next scene.
The origin story that informs the doctor's epidermal obsession -- his wife committed suicide after burning her face in an accident -- makes it clear he's capable of anything. Vera, however, is not merely a damsel in distress; the act that led Ledgard to make her into his guinea pig almost justifies his deranged behavior. Almodóvar takes this material in several directions, sometimes toying with horror pastiche, and occasionally simply ramping up the suspense. The result is an inventive set-up that wanders around, as if Almodóvar just wanted the opportunity to move away from the dramatic turf where he has resided of late. If nothing else, "Skin" illustrates that a throwback doesn't necessarily equate with a return to form.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Set for U.S. distribution through Sony Pictures Classics, "Skin" should do solid business in limited release on the basis of the director's art-house cred and Banderas' celebrity appeal.
criticWIRE grade: B-