A mad-scientist tale without the moral compass in The Skin I Live In

Nov 24, 2011 at 4:00 am

The morality of the mad-scientist tale has remained more or less fixed since the beginning of sound cinema: From Dr. Frankenstein's hubristic claim to "know what it feels like to be God," to Jurassic Park's criticism of "scientists [who] were so preoccupied with whether they could that they didn't stop to think if they should," these are generally stories about scientific innovators who are essentially good men — or were until they got so carried away with their own powers of creation that they lost sight of their innovation's implications and suffered the consequences.

The main narrative strand of Pedro Almodóvar's The Skin I Live In hews to that template but to unusual ends. A post-modern homage to Hitchcock, which raises the Master of Suspense's implicit sexual obsessions to the textual level, its moral compass is totally, thrillingly whacked, as Almodóvar dispenses with traditional notions of good versus evil, perpetrators and victims. It's a horror story with constantly shifting subjectivity.

Based on Thierry Jonquet's novel Tarantula, Almodóvar's eighteenth feature stars Antonio Banderas as Robert Ledgard, a plastic surgeon who develops a revolutionary new human skin that ultimately plays a role in the doctor's diabolical plot to avenge the deaths of his wife and daughter. The link between Dr. Ledgard's invention and that payback is Vera (Elena Anaya), a beautiful patient whom the doctor keeps in a two-way-mirror-equipped room in the palatial home he shares with his longtime maid (Marisa Paredes). It's probably not much of a surprise that no member of this triangle is exactly who they seem to be, but to explain more about Skin's relationships would spoil much of the pleasure in this ever-unfurling, ultimately infuriating web of a film, which is constantly veering off into flashbacks and then hurtling forward into a "present" seen through the eyes of unreliable narrators.

The film is most exciting at its most disorienting, mired in a dreamlike state of confusion that Almodóvar produces masterfully but does not let last too long. It turns out that one of the director's first shots, a pan across a Louise Bourgeois coffee-table book, offers both a key to the movie's themes — the Bourgeoisian territory of father-daughter relationships, sexuality as vulnerability, the body as a construction, and the multiple connotations of "cells" — and an introduction to its habit of short-circuiting the viewer's imagination by literally putting explanatory texts center screen. Taking a good deal of its running time to supply all of the backstory necessary to fully understand its first string of images, The Skin I Live In ends with no plot hole left unfilled.

To this end, the film deflates in its final third, with crude matter-of-fact set pieces, dumb explanatory psychology, and bursts of intentional camp overwhelming and canceling out the unmoored creepiness. You could say that Almodóvar makes the classic mistake of the mad scientist: In doing a post-modern reinvention of old-fashioned thriller tropes, he gets so caught up in the experiment that he kills the basic pleasures of the genre.