With The Skin I Live In, Pedro Almodóvar offers his own mad-scientist hybrid of the body-horror and kinky thriller genres, fusing David Cronenberg with Brian De Palma while keeping plenty of Almodóvar in the mix. Antonio Banderas stars as a superstar plastic surgeon who experiments on new kinds of skin and face transplants, using an abductee as his test subject. Elena Anaya plays the abductee, and in an extended mid-film flashback, we learn her story: how her life intersected with Banderas’ one fateful night years ago, and how he’s been transforming her ever since, one cut and graft at a time.
The biggest problem with The Skin I Live In is that the flashback sequence does in an hour what could’ve easily have been done in 15 minutes, especially given that most of its grand revelations are telegraphed long before they arrive. Almodóvar doesn’t seem especially interested in jarring the audience, either with his biggest plot twists or with the prospect of a Spanish Victor Frankenstein who reacts to the prospect of death by creating monstrous new life. No, Almodóvar appears to be more fascinated by the evolving relationship between a madman and his victim, and whether they can forget what brought them to this point and co-exist in some unique, bizarre way.
Which is why by the end of The Skin I Live In, Almodóvar has reverted too easily to his stock melodrama mode, with glossy surfaces covering up the characters’ deep hurt and loss. Had Almodóvar embraced the genre more, and changed his style to suit a story in which human beings get hacked up and transformed, he might’ve naturally found his way into a more potent, satisfying narrative, rather than one that dawdles and dead-ends. He’s a little too clinical in his approach to deliver real shocks, even with all the blood and blade-work that runs through the story. Then again, there’s something fitting about a movie that’s so concerned with the cosmetic looking so pristine. Thematically—and visually—Skin works, even when it falls short dramatically.