Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In screens tomorrow night as a “gala” presentation of the New York Film Festival. Sony Classics will release the movie in theaters this Friday.
In The Skin I Live In, Antonio Banderas—never more ridiculously suave—plays a world-renowned plastic surgeon who’s retreated to his home clinic, with creamy hardwood floors and enormous oil-painting nudes on the walls, to perform private experiments on a beautiful woman (Elena Anaya) locked in an upstairs bedroom.
By splicing in some pig DNA, he’s created a skin that’s impervious to mosquito bites and burns (his wife was burned to a crisp in a car crash under mysterious circumstances, and his grief-stricken daughter killed herself years later): The Skin I Live In, like Tykwer’s 3, uses stem cells and bioengineering as a metaphor for changeability, and like the recent German film, Pedro Almodóvar’s best movie in—wow, years—is luxuriant with influences.
The girl upstairs—who is said to look somehow familiar—tears strips from her dresses to make sculptures influenced by Louise Bourgeois’s deeply ambivalent, physical embodiments of womanhood, and reads from a stacks of books (we’re shown one by Alice Munro) when not practicing yoga in a body stocking (there’s an attempted rape by an intruder in a tiger costume: the two of them slide around in their skintight bodysuits, groping and fending each other off like a modern dance performance). The mask she’s seen to wear in some earlier scenes makes explicit the relationship to previous plastic-surgery thriller Eyes Without a Face, and Almodóvar’s self-conscious about his relationship to classic Hollywood melodrama—heightened and elaborate, the devices he invites into his movie expand its potential for emotional experience, so that the investigation of desire and fantasy becomes more baroque, simultaneously campier and more engrossing, with every elaborate flashback, long-nursed grudge, and secret identity.
The Big Twist here is not without precedent in the Almodóvar filmography (it also, along with the obsessive recreation of a beloved woman, by a grieving husband and father, further proves that latter-day Almodóvar tells the best long-form Hitchcock jokes since mid-period De Palma), but it’s a doozy. It also refocuses onto the individual the movie’s inquiry into identity and aesthetics—into just what kind of multitudes we contain.