In The Skin I Live In, Antonio Banderas keeps a woman prisoner in his house and experiments on her. He uses her as a human guinea pig for an super-strong artificial skin that will resist burns and bug bites.
But it's what happens afterwards that makes Antonio Banderas' character the worst mad scientist in movie history. Spoilers ahead... Seriously, there's a bit of a spoiler coming here. Be warned.
So the first half hour to 45 minutes of The Skin I Live In are all about Banderas experimenting on his captive girl. Banderas plays Robert Ledgard, a super-elite plastic surgeon who's one of the few people to have performed face transplants. (Yes, just like in Face/Off.) He creates a synthetic skin by lifting genes from pigs, and this "transgenic" skin is stronger and more damage-resistant than normal human skin. We discover that Ledgard's wife was burned to a crisp in a car crash, hence his obsession with creating burn-proof skin.
There are tons of scenes of him painstakingly grafting this skin onto his captive experimental subject. Honestly, the first third of the movie is pure awesomeness.
And then about a third of the way into the movie, Ledgard has just given a talk about his new synthetic skin breakthrough — although he claims he's only tested it on mice, of course. And an older professor type comes up and tells Ledgard to stop these unethical experiments at once.
So how does Ledgard respond? He basically says, "Okay." And he does stop his research, apparently for good. The synthetic skin experiments are never mentioned again for the rest of the movie, even though up to this point they've been this consuming obsession for Ledgard, and the movie's entire plot. (Actually, someone mentions them in passing at the very end of the movie, like "Hey remember that plotline we discarded?") The fact that this captive has had artificial fire-proof skin grafted all over her body never becomes a plot point, nor does Ledgard pursue his research further.
And that's why Robert Ledgard is the worst mad scientist in the history of movies. A real mad scientist would take "unethical" as a compliment, and keep right on experimenting.
I apologize if the above seems like a huge spoiler — honestly, I haven't given away any of the big surprises that happen later in the movie. I do feel like people should be forewarned, because I went into this film expecting it to be about the artificial skin experiments — that's what the plot synopsis says, after all. And the film delivers total "mad scientist" brilliance, for the first 45 minutes or thereabouts.
After the "mad science" storyline is abandoned, the film veers sharply into a typical Almodovar soap opera. This shift is signaled when a man in a tiger costume shows up out of the blue and starts putting the women in bondage or ambiguously raping them. There are a couple ambiguous rapes, plus people freaking out and people being freaky. The movie that The Skin I Live In turns into after the artificial skin storyline is abandoned is a perfectly decent film, but it does feel like a movie I've seen a million times before. Everybody turns out to be a pretty unsympathetic character, and every moment of weirdness and/or horror is drawn out as much as possible.
So yeah — I was annoyed by the movie's slight "bait and switch," partly because I was really looking forward to seeing where the movie went with the issues it raises about splicing human and animal DNA. And what would happen to someone whose skin is no longer human. If you don't care about that stuff, though, then you may well enjoy the film for what it is. A lot of people I've talked to seem to have enjoyed it quite a bit.
And in fact, it's true that The Skin I Live In has some fascinating things to say about skin, which will stick with you after the movie ends. Almodovar does a lot of brilliant work with texture in this film, and the effect is to make us think about skin.
There are a lot of weird substitutes for skin in the film — the captive Vera, played by Elena Anaya, wears a high-tech bodystocking that is skin-colored and makes her look naked but sexless, like a doll. At one point, when Vera is on the operating table, we see her naked body and she's so smooth and perfect she looks like a mannequin. We also look at grotesque shop-window dummies that are like scarecrows, with rough straw and sackcloth instead of skin, with nice dresses hanging on them.
As Robert Ledgard explains early in the movie, our faces make us who we are, and allow us to express ourselves as well as have a social existence. Almodovar's obsessive focus on skin, and different types of false skin, in the movie, keeps bringing back the idea that skin is a social instrument. Our skin doesn't just protect us from our surroundings, it connects us to the world.
And the central story of the film, the one which takes over after we discard the notion of creating pig-human hybrid skin, is all about the scars we all carry. The central incident of the film is the car accident in which Ledgard's wife was burned to a "cinder," and we spend a lot of time learning about that incident and what caused it. We also learn about the aftermath of that car crash, and how it's left scars on every character in the film, directly or indirectly.
So to sum up — The Skin I Live in is a pretty decent art-movie thriller, full of WTF moments and suspense. There's a lot of gun-toting, car-crashing, kick-fighting action, and quite a few beautiful, jarring images. And at times, it seems to be groping towards a very literary examination of selfhood, all the ways in which we disguise ourselves and others. The over-arching plot of a man dealing with his wife's terrible accident does loop around in an interesting way, to create a portrait of grief and revenge. It's a beautifully shot film that muses about the nature of beauty and ugliness, in ways that you'll keep thinking about afterwards.
But honestly, I liked the movie The Skin I Live In starts out as a whole lot more than the movie it turns into. The Skin I Live In starts out as a really extraordinary movie, then veers off course and turns into just an ordinary European art movie.