The Skin I Live In

Sarah Ward

TRANSMISSION FILMS: Pedro Almodóvar reunites with Antonio Banderas for this inventive, elaborate amalgam of horror, drama, noir, thriller and even comedy.
The Skin I Live In
Few filmmakers incite the reaction inspired by Pedro Almodóvar, with the Spanish director and writer adored around the globe. Indeed, he is considered his nation’s most successful cinematic export, with his frequent actors Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas the only others that come close. After two consecutive efforts with the former, he reunites with the latter after 21 years. Together, they craft the intricate, intimate The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito).

A skilled plastic surgeon, Robert Ledgard (Banderas, Puss in Boots) has devoted his estate to medical research. Creating burn-proof artificial skin is his aim, driven by the loss of his wife years earlier. However, his household also hides a secret inhabitant, with the attractive Vera (Elena Anaya, Cairo Time) held against her will. When the violent son (Roberto Álamo, The 2 Sides of the Bed) of his maid and accomplice Marilia (Marisa Paredes, The Devil's Backbone) visits unannounced, the truth behind Vera’s captivity is revealed.

Stemming from Thierry Jonquet's novel Mygale (or Tarantula), The Skin I Live In unravels a web of lies and lust tinged with vengeance and grief. To say more is to spoil the resonant retelling of Almodóvar’s compelling creation – and make no mistake, this is one film that deserves to be seen without prior knowledge of the twist. Adopting a non-linear structure, the helmer teases the audience for much of the feature’s unsettling 117 minutes. When the riveting reveal comes, although amply foreshadowed, it arrives with his trademark melodramatic emphasis.

Accordingly, the film is an inventive, elaborate and elegant amalgam of horror, drama, noir, thriller and even comedy. The stylistic fusion is complimented by the consistent aesthetic and approach, with the precise presentation chilling and clinical at all times. Yet, like the characters depicted, emotion lingers beneath the unconventional surface. Whilst a departure from his female-focused work of late (Broken Embraces and Volver), the film is as affecting and enthralling as the rest of his oeuvre.

In fact, The Skin I Live In most resembles Almodóvar’s underappreciated Bad Education, mirroring its contemplation of sexuality and identity. The director draws yet another career-defining turn from his leading man, with Banderas – like Gael Garcia Bernal in the aforementioned effort – never better on screen. Their partnership exudes ambition, with the end result finessed and fascinating. Whilst few directors could have made this film at all, only one could have cultivated the masterpiece that it is.

Rating: 4.5

The Skin I Live In
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Spain, 2011, 117 min

Distributor: Transmission
Rated MA
In cinemas nationally December 26

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay