“The Skin I Live In” is damaged, but in a good way

Some of Spain’s greatest contributions to the world include Picasso, the modern acoustic guitar, sangria, and filmmaker, Pedro Almodóvar. All make life richer, all are world renowned, and all are delightfully refreshing — especially the sangria.

Add to the list of Awesome Things from Spain: the enchanting actress Elena Anaya (last seen checking out of her Room in Rome), who stars with Antonio Banderas in Almodóvar’s newest film, The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito).

Anaya plays Vera, a beautiful, strange young woman being held prisoner in an upscale villa owned by Dr. Robert Ledgard (Banderas). The doctor is a prominent plastic surgeon who’s using her as a human guinea pig for the secret experiments he’s carrying out in a customized operating theater in his basement.

The isolated villa provides the privacy Ledgard needs to work on his obsession: a supple, flawless, artificial skin impervious to injury, especially burns. The reason for the obsession? Twelve years ago, Ledgard’s wife was critically burned in a car fire and, upon catching her disfigured face in a reflection, she promptly threw herself out of a window.

The act of looking, one of Almodóvar’s signature themes, begins when we first meet mysterious Vera. She is under constant surveillance through multiple flat screen monitors in the house. We observe her practicing yoga while wearing an odd, skin-colored body stocking complete with toes. Sometimes, she works on small sculptures, gluing together scraps of material torn from the dresses she refuses to wear. Using an eyebrow pencil, she counts the days and records her thoughts on a large white wall in the crowded, single-spaced, edge-to-edge scrawl usually reserved for the manifestos of the insane.

The only witness to the twisted goings-on in the house is Ledgard’s longtime housekeeper, Marilia (Marisa Paredes), who feeds Vera her meals via a dumbwaiter. She also dotes on the good doctor with creepy familiarity and for good reason. She’s his mother, although he doesn’t know it.

Ledgard’s sociopath half-brother, Zeca (Roberto Álamo), shows up at the house wearing a tiger costume (he has a reason for that, I promise.) Zeca sees Vera and her inexplicable resemblance to Ledgard’s dead wife. For reasons we learn later, he breaks into Vera’s room and rapes her. When Ledgard returns home and catches Zeca on top of Vera, he shoots him dead. Already conflicted about Ledgard, Vera then becomes more deeply drawn to her captor, now savior.

Vera’s identity and Ledgard’s motives are cleverly revealed within two long flashbacks. There are too many interwoven spoilers to say much, but we learn that six years after his wife’s suicide, Ledgard’s daughter, who wasn’t all there to begin with, also killed herself after being date-raped by a young man named Vicente (Jan Cornet), who misread her mental illness as consent, panicked, and then fled the scene.

Loosely adapted from a chilling little French novel called, Mygale by Thierry Jonquet, The Skin I Live In is not so much a suspense-packed thriller, but it is definitely compelling and twisted. Almodóvar deftly holds back information in an organic way that never telegraphs what’s coming. Some would say the plot twists are inspired, some would say absurd. Either way, you can’t stop watching.

Known for his complex, sometimes surreal storylines, his affinity for female characters, and themes of family, voyeurism, obsession and identity, Almodóvar reveals his unique genius for all the above once again. And as an out gay man, he frequently writes gay and lesbian characters, and routinely explores gender, fluidity and LGBT motifs. This film is no exception.

Almodóvar loves visuals and uses them artfully here to punctuate the uneasiness. Ledgard’s home is filled with paintings of nudes, one without faces. We watch Ledgard’s hands meticulously cutting skin into puzzle pieces. The camera lingers on Vera’s macabre art projects, which resemble prototypes you might find in Buffalo Bill’s sewing room in Silence of the Lambs. Her white silicone mask has a sterile, gelatinous quality. Blood, dirt, water and stainless steel are all given fine visual treatment.

Antonio Banderas gives an understated performance as the twisted Dr. Ledgard. He manages to normalize Ledgard’s erotic skin fetish, which renders it all the more weird. He controls his character’s obsession with crimes against nature (and the law) so completely that Ledgard looks and acts more like an amoral James Bond than a maniacal Dr. Frankenstein.

Vera is forced to spend all her days locked up in maddening solitude, until the rape, which sparks a series of events that finally brings her self-awareness and a chance at freedom. As Vera, Elena Anaya’s energy is as focused as her face is flawless, playing her character’s alternating stillness and physicality with equal élan.

The film is not without its funny moments. When a fellow physician suspects Ledgard of a diabolical act, he assures his colleague that the patient in question is not dead, but living as a successful porn star in Los Angeles. That got a big laugh at the screening I attended here in L.A.

And when we learn that Marilia is Ledgard’s and Zeca’s mother, she admits both her sons are quite mad in their own ways, and declares with a straight face, “I’ve got insanity in my entrails!”

The Skin I Live In opened at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival in May and has been released over the past few months in select countries. It opens in limited release in the US today.

Watch the trailer: