Face Without a Soul
By Michael Koresky

The Skin I Live In
Dir. Pedro Almod贸var, Spain, Sony Pictures Classics

Only Pedro Almod贸var circa 2011 could so effectively neuter an outr茅 scenario like the one at the center of his new film, The Skin I Live In. Conscientious reviewers will feel the need to tiptoe around its major conceit similar to way the director does鈥攂ut the more one talks around the film, the less one is likely to get out of it. Most of The Skin I Live In is structured with obfuscating tactics, which, as the plot wears on and its lines are more clearly drawn, only end up distracting from its central ideas. What could have been an inexorable, tragicomic study of a violently furious and genderless love instead becomes a pointless, meandering shell game played on the audience. So let the spoilers fly: unlike Almod贸var, I refuse to dance around The Skin I Live In, which in some alternate-reality cut could have been a touchingly tortured pas de deux rather than just a tortuous labyrinth.

A m茅lange of melodrama and horror, spiked with a careful dose of med-fetish erotica, Skin at least begins with enough arresting visual panache to sustain it for about a half an hour. A delicate-featured gamine, Vera (Elena Anaya), clothed neck to toe in an elastic, artificial second skin, has been held captive in the austere and remote home-cum-hospital of a famous experimental surgeon, Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), for an indeterminate amount of time; she is constantly monitored in her spacious yet sealed compound by surveillance cameras overseen by the doctor and his older assistant, Marila (Marisa Paredes). First seen, Anaya cuts a striking figure indeed, her slender torso splayed out in an impossibly straight line in a yoga stretch over a couch that seems designed more for our aesthetic pleasure than her own health. She seems to be the picture of physical perfection, save that nagging (and only slightly sagging) body stocking that seems to both accentuate her attributes and possibly hide some glaring flaws. In other words, right away Vera seems to be both beauty and beast, and we鈥檙e not sure if the palpable threat hanging over the film emanates from within her or outside of her; especially confounding is that she seems to be a willing prisoner, a patient at a particularly restrictive clinic, one in which the door to her room is always locked鈥攁s well as a tentative love interest for Ledgard, as the two are seen in bed together and in various amorous poses.

So far so good, especially since Almod贸var鈥檚 taste for retina-pleasing color palettes and handsomely intersecting lines has not diminished over the years; and thanks to his finely tuned sense of set-up鈥攈e鈥檚 deft at knowing just how much to show and how to show it鈥攖here鈥檚 an undeniable enticement to the opening scenes of The Skin I Live In. Yet as he proved in Bad Education, Volver, and especially Broken Embraces, Almod贸var has grown increasingly lousy with exposition. Once the back story starts coming fast and furious here, the film is helplessly revealed as a precarious structure鈥攚hich it needn鈥檛 have been. The basic premise of The Skin I Live In is lurid, juicy, and promising as a bent love story about the ways in which we live with the changes imposed on us in relationships; yet its impact is diluted with multiple bungled subplots and haphazardly stacked flashbacks. Every moment comes burdened with the weight of soggy, unleavened melodrama; Almod贸var is too busy playing with his audience to let his characters be playful.

[Spoiler alert encore.] About halfway through the film, it becomes gradually clear, after much lugubrious hemming and hawing, that Vera as we know her is the result of a shocking, involuntary experiment. Two cataclysmal past events have deranged Ledgard, who is simultaneously distraught over the deaths of his wife and daughter: the former, charred beyond recognition following a fiery car crash, took her own life by jumping out a window after seeing her burned visage in a mirror for the first time; the latter, Norma, traumatized by witnessing her mother crash-land right at her feet, grows up to be a haunted young woman who commits suicide while a patient at a mental hospital.

Ledgard blames Norma鈥檚 death not only on the family鈥檚 tragic past but also on young dress-shop owner Vicente (Jan Cornet), a leather-jacketed, pill-popping party boy he believes to have raped her years earlier at a wedding. This central sequence, set in an overly art-directed, frivolously fairy-tale garden, is one of Almod贸var鈥檚 most senseless bits of flimfam. Looking for his daughter amongst a group of drunk teenagers who鈥檝e broken away from the festivities, Banderas becomes voyeur, traipsing through a forest, watching in horrified, paralyzed fascination as an ethereal orgy commences. When he finds his daughter, screaming and defiled beneath a tree in the moonlight after Vicente has zoomed off on his motorcycle (it鈥檚 left open to interpretation whether he really raped her鈥攁nother example of the director鈥檚 caginess), we realize Almod贸var intends this is Ledgard鈥檚 primal scene as a parent, the instigating moment of what will lead to his madness. Yet Almod贸var鈥檚 tasteless rendering of this poisoned young flesh made poetic reveals the film as only engrossed in bodies; Norma鈥檚 a cipher, supine and faceless. As the film will go on to prove, Almod贸var is doing Cronenberg, but in his attempt to graft that director鈥檚 fleshy preoccupations onto the red-hot soap operatics of his mid-period films like Live Flesh and Kika, he ends up making a poor imitation of both.

After Norma is found dead, Ledgard somehow tracks down and kidnaps Vicente, chains up and holds the boy prisoner in a dank, cavernous space, where he nearly starves him, save water and gruel. Following a tense shaving scene in which Ledgard gives him a tender once-over with a straight razor (a standby in thrillers鈥攅ven when they鈥檙e safely set in safety-razor times such as these), the sinister, two-pronged plan becomes clear: not only will Ledgard have diabolical revenge on the boy by changing his sex, he will also use him as an unwitting test subject to help perfect a tougher epidermis impervious to fire, as well as replace his face with that of his beloved dead wife. This all happens, well, clinically. When Vicente awakens, strapped to the table, Ledgard informs him in almost comically nonchalant manner that he鈥檚 had a vaginoplasty.

At this point, even after Almod贸var has finally laid it out so plainly, the mechanics of the film begin to seem peculiarly faulty. Mostly this is due to the twin casting of Elena Anaya and Jan Cornet as Vera and Vicente鈥攏ot only because they look nothing like each other (it鈥檚 difficult to believe that Cornet鈥檚 rough, wide-set Gael Garcia Bernal-ish pug features could ever grow into Anaya鈥檚 placid, dewdrop, wholly feminine beauty) but also because by making Vera such a traditionally feminine love interest for antihero Ledgard (one never doubts Anaya as a woman), there is no palpable gender subversion to this sordid tale.

Ostensibly a queered version of Georges Franju鈥檚 Eyes Without a Face, The Skin I Live In retains very little of that film鈥檚 significantly transgressive core, and it doesn鈥檛 even try to approach the palpable body horror of something like Dead Ringers, shying away as it does from the actual process of changing Vicente to Vera. The transformation is ultimately accomplished in a quick and painless dissolve from a close-up of Cornet鈥檚 face to Anaya鈥檚鈥攗nderscoring also the film鈥檚 transition from a potentially penetrative look at the shiftiness of sexual identity and the inability of our physical beings to fully reflect that identity, to a surprisingly hetero-centric Almod贸varian tchotchke, complete with Eames-meets-Gilliam interior design and plenty of revolvers hidden in handbags.

The Spanish director, who seems to enjoy his own overly rehearsed outr茅ness more than anyone else these days, adds one revelation after another (secret mothers and brothers, doubled rapes and shootings) to this already twisted tale so that the whole thing collapses under their weight. Left beneath the rubble is Vera herself, whose final act ends up feeling more like one last arbitrary plot turn than the cathartic moment of triumph and assertion of individuality it seems to have been intended as. And just when Almod贸var seems to be reaching a moment of sentimental clarity in the final scene鈥攊n which the whole convoluted thing appears to be tastily reducing down to a finely simmered women鈥檚 weepie鈥攈e shoots himself in the foot, abruptly fading to credits just before the most difficult emotions would necessarily burst forth. It鈥檚 the film鈥檚 unkindest cut.