A clinical, cut-throat edge infuses Pedro Almodovar’s masterfully macabre The Skin I Live In. The Spanish director displays skill with the tools of his trade in a similar fashion to his plastic surgeon protagonist: brutal but highly effective. In an exquisitely devilish turn, Antonio Banderas plays Dr Robert Ledgard, a gifted man haunted by a tragic past who invents a synthetic skin capable of withstanding damage. Living like Hannibal Lecter and looking like a dishevelled Cary Grant, Robert Ledgard sets about playing god with a mysterious brunette locked in the bedroom of his stylish pad. We soon learn that his wife suffered horrific burns in a car crash, that he enjoys a puff on an opium pipe and that he has a proclivity for tight clothing, all of which add up to very little as scene after scene the mystery is compounded.

It’s a fascinating film dripping with symbolism and social commentary (expect nothing less from Almodovar), but there’s no need to go digging under the flesh – at its surface, The Skin I Live In is a polished psychodrama capable of steady thrills just as much as bolts to the brain. All the while there is a constant undercurrent of violence as pistols hide in secretive drawers and knives and needles cruise from act to act as the sexual and physical tension bubbles. We are reminded of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange in both location and tone in one shocking scene where a raving and randy tiger (fancy dress, mind) ravishes Ledgard’s subject and it’s not the only occasion Almodovar plays with notions of sexuality. The entire film is feast of carnal activity, in fact, where gender and sexual stereotypes need not apply.

Much is made of the now infamous twist, particularly on the film’s sensational poster, and when it kicks in it’s a real surprise. This is a slow burn, however, and anyone expecting a sugar-rush kick like The Usual Suspects will be disappointed. Still, the feeling you’re left with is both satisfying and disturbing in equal measures.

By Ian Roebuck

Originally published in issue 31 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. September 2011.