Following the intriguing but finally confused (and slightly smug) Broken Embraces (2009), a film that never quite added up to the sum to its parts, for me, everyone’s favourite Spanish provocateur returns with The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito) (2011), his 18th feature. I approached The Skin I Live In with a certain amount of trepidation, especially since a friend of mine described it as “a new low for Almodóvar.” It’s true that the new film falls into some of the same traps as Broken Embraces, notably an excess of plotting and "back-story," and a rather wearying tendency toward self-plagiarism. And yet this elegantly lurid horror/comedy exerts a fascination. It’s Almodóvar’s craziest work in some time and one that sometimes touches the erratic gaudy splendours of Átame! (1990) or High Heels (1991).
Adapted very freely from the late French crime novelist Thierry Jonquet’s 1984 novella Tarantula, The Skin I Live In mashes up elements of all kinds of “mad scientist” texts (from Frankenstein to Franju’s classic Eyes Without A Face ) to tell the story of Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), an eminent plastic surgeon who is holding captive a young woman named Vera (Elena Anaya) in his palatial mansion on the outskirts of Toledo. In a lengthy series of flashbacks, the nature of Robert and Vera’s history gradually becomes clear.
The film’s manic mixing of moods as it swerves between farce and thriller, sci-fi, noir, horror and melodrama is more skilfully achieved than it was in Broken Embraces in which the shifts between genres proved jarring. Here, helped along by some particularly deft work from his regular collaborators (Alberto Iglesias’s score is especially luscious) Almodóvar once again proves himself a master of the sustained set-piece and, against all odds, the film even wins its way through to emotion in a couple of scenes.
The tactility of the film also seems likely to inspire a raft of essays on haptic visuality in Almodóvar, or at least a chapter in a new edition of Laura Marks’s wonderful The Skin of the Film. (In Broken Embraces, a TV screen featuring an image of a lost object of desire was carressed; here a screen gets licked.) Indeed, it’s television that provides the salvation for one character, in the film’s most emotionally affecting sequence.
The cast do well. Reuniting with the director for the first time since Átame! Banderas gives a well-controlled and menacing performance. Anaya (in a role originally intended for Penélope Cruz) combines sensuality, vulnerability and steely resolve to compelling effect, and it’s a special delight to see Marisa Paredes on screen again, bringing inimitable gravitas and “morbo” to her role as Robert’s housekeeper. Playing her son, Roberto Álamo strides into the film - hilariously - in a tiger costume, only to become the protagonist of the most outrageous and disturbing sequence here, a riff on the notorious “comic” rape scene in Kika (1993).
Like Broken Embraces, The Skin I Live In gets sillier the more you think about it, and there is, finally, a hollow quality to its sensational revelations (especially its central one) that makes it seem increasingly unlikely that we’ll ever get a work of the depth and beauty of, say, Talk to Her (2002) from Almodóvar again. Still, scene by scene the picture holds the attention. It's bad fun if you’re in the right frame of mind, proof that this director’s movie-struck universe is still a diverting place to live in, every once in a while.