Pedro Almodóvar’s 18th feature film concerns, with no small amount of self-amusement, the kind of seamless plastic-surgical transformation that can only be imagined by the movies. Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas, working with the director for the first time since 1990’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!) has engineered a more durable skin—flames don’t burn it, mosquitoes don’t bite it. By splicing human and pig cells, he may have invented a cure for malaria—as he notes to his stunned peers at a cocktail reception—but he’s not flouting bioethics merely for the common good. Flashing back from a near-future 2012, The Skin I Live In dissects the cluster of obsessions motivating the diabolical doc’s home experiments, gradually revealing what, exactly, he’s fireproofing. Almodóvar’s last few films have sagged under the weight of the soap-operatic backstory, but here the mystery clarifies as if underneath a microscope, in spite of the self-consciously clunky temporal shifts ("BACK TO THE PRESENT," reads one title card).
Ledgard calls the skin "Gal," after his late wife, who was badly burned in a car accident, and jumped out the window after seeing her reflection in it. (She didn’t see herself, but "a cinder," the house’s chief caretaker relates in the film’s longest-winded monologue.) Ledgard’s grand project—the light scientific mumbo-jumbo meshes very well with the atmosphere of bitter luxury—appears to involve the woman imprisoned off the master bedroom. Viewed on closed-circuit monitors throughout the house—a repeated motif puts her pixelated face, either miniaturized or blown up, in the same frame as those watching her, giving the illusion of proximity—"Vera Cruz" (Elena Anaya) cycles through a strict daily regimen of self-expression (she scrawls on the walls, and makes copycat Louise Bourgeois sculptures), yoga (to access the inviolable core of her being), and opium (to forget everything else). After a home invader in a tiger costume—also, as it happens, Ledgard’s half brother—violates Vera, she begins a tentative romance with her captor. At one point she makes a suggestive remark about being "made to measure" for him.
The primary reveal here is shocking in several ways: for its element of surprise, for its extremity, and for how much it instantly complicates, and deepens, the film’s investigations into identity and fantasy projection that had up until that point seemed mostly sutured together from other films (chiefly Vertigo and Eyes Without a Face). This is truly exquisite junk, about one mastermind’s particularly deranged quest to manipulate flesh-and-blood surfaces and incise revenge—to lock picture, as it were, on a realization of his most closely held desires.