Starring: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Jan Cornet
Directed by: Pedro Almodovar (“Volver”)
Written by: Pedro Almodovar (“Talk to Her”)

As Dr. Robert Ledgard sits and watches a TV screen showing the woman he has kidnapped in the next room, something inside him clicks. What was once a cruel science experiment was now something different. He has created the perfect specimen, and fallen in love with his creation. This perverse dilemma anchors the bizarre and sexually-driven Spanish art house film “The Skin I Live In,” an unsettling look into the mind and motives of a mentally-battered plastic surgeon.

After his wife had her entire body burned in a terrible car accident, Dr. Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) vows to create a new form of synthetic skin that is completely immune to burns. When his methods of experimentation come into question, he decides to perform his experiments on a woman named Vera Cruz (played by Elena Anaya) who Dr. Ledgard keeps sequestered in his mansion.  In a series of flashbacks, the audience discovers what led Dr. Ledgard to keep Vera locked up in his house.

Banderas turns in a very strong performance in a role that is hilariously juxtaposed to his other film currently in theaters, “Puss in Boots.” Banderas attacks the evil surgeon role with a cool and collected demeanor, straying away from the typical deranged madness one would see in a film with similar subject matter.  Perhaps more impressive is the brave performance from Anaya. For a good portion of the film, Anaya finds herself abused and kept against her will and does a thorougly convincing job portraying her struggles. After her full body suit comes off, Anaya’s stunning beauty is on full display. With perfect skin that is either the handiwork of a very skilled make-up team or fantastic genetics, we are able to see how Banderas has essentially crafted the perfect woman.

The film is bolstered by flawless direction by Pedro Almodovar. Every shot is perfectly constructed and vibrant, making for a gorgeous and smooth looking film. Many of the shots of the film have a throwback, almost film-noir feel to them, creating iconic and memorable imagery. Like many of his previous films, Almodovar makes use of flashbacks as a storytelling device, and does so in an incredibly effective way.  In particular, there is a confusing flashback in the middle of the film where audiences may question how relevant the scene is to the movie. However, when the big twist is revealed and the dots begin to connect, the film ascends into something uniquely twisted.

Dealing with a mad scientist who is performing surgeries to create the perfect woman, Almodovar could have easily taken the “torture porn” route with gratuitous violence and gore. Instead, what is presented is more of a psychological thriller, which helps communicate the chilling nature of the events in a far more effective and restrained manner. The audience is never overwhelmed by graphic images (other than sexual) but yet everything that happens is still completely disturbing.

With unsettling subject matter and overt sexual tones, “The Skin I Live In” is not for everyone. However, it is an unrelentingly dark and wholly unique story that, on the strength of superb direction, is far from the torture-laden gimmick that it could have become in lesser hands.

Grade: B+

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