After years of being met with goodwill and shrugs, Pedro Almodóvar has made a movie that has the distinction of being genuinely unpleasant. His adaptation of a novel by Thierry Jonquet unpacks the mysterious desire of a surgeon (played by Antonio Banderas with disastrous stiffness) who has imprisoned a woman for an experiment in sculpting beauty. By the time the not-so-winding path to this state of affairs has been retraced, the riffs on sexual identity endemic to Almodóvar have taken a sinister turn, all the more off-putting because of the film’s cool tone.
Vera, played by an immaculate-looking Elena Anaya, spends her days in captivity as a human art object in a sheer body suit, in what reads at first as Almodóvar’s attempt at tapping the melodramatic potential of mad-scientist horror (with a nod to Georges Franju). But with the gonzo break in by a man in a tiger costume and a disturbing backstory involving the surgeon’s daughter and an elfin young man, the already claustrophobic story folds back onto itself to delve into the main characters’ dark places. These, as with the outlandish Forties melodramas that continue to inspire Almodóvar, are best savored without foreknowledge.
Despite the typically invigorating sense of line and framing, The Skin I Live In withholds the director’s customary satisfactions and affirmations. The result is a saga of obsession that, in its saturnine undertone, maintains a hard-to-enjoy integrity.