Let’s be clear about something: the title of Pedro Almodóvar’s 1987 film Law of Desire is both emblematic and entirely cheeky with regards to this filmmaker’s singular body of work. There are no laws where Almodóvar’s characters’ desires are concerned—at least none that can’t be broken in the spirit of audacity, subversion, showing off, or compulsive plot-twisting—just an immaculately crafted blur of reptile-brain urge and wild ambition, a confusion of longing, desperation, memory and gender.
His latest film, an adaptation of Thierry Jonquet’s 1995 novel Tarantula, plunges into some as yet uncharted (by Almodóvar at least) and especially unsettling territory, with the innovative, fabulously resourceful and seriously messed up plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas, back with the writer/director who made his name for the first time in two decades) plumbing the unexplored depths of posthuman sciences in his efforts to restore order to his shattered family. There’s a beautiful young woman sequestered and constantly monitored in his rural Toledo home and laboratory. She’s both a captive, stolen away from a whole other life, and something invented. The mad doctor is, in a sense, building himself a new wife. He is attempting to recover a dead life. Most interestingly, his endeavour is driven by the conviction that all that makes us who we are is infinitely malleable once we start to tinker with the outside. The external, he believes, determines the external. And to be sure, in Almodóvar, surfaces really do matter.
Given such a premise, The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito) is often extremely creepy. It’s also perhaps a little too cool and clean and clinical, too bogglingly plotty and over-calculated to truly love, but the highly composed grand design has things to ponder, revisit and re-admire. (Like Hitchcock, Almodóvar makes movies that even when flawed are tough to truly exhaust.) The source material aside, the obvious model for this macabre tale of obsession, isolation and transformation is the great 1960 French horror film Eyes Without a Face, directed by Georges Franju, who also made a movie about an abattoir that has to be seen to be believed, or has to be seen to know how much you probably wish you didn’t see it. Most Almodóvar has very clear roots in earlier, beloved, canonical films, but this one doesn’t accentuate homage with much warmth, and there are only a few fits of his characteristic humour. (One highly memorable and totally appalling example of this includes an uneasy reunion between Redgard’s assistant and some guy in a tiger costume.)
I feel like I keep wanting to warn you all about what The Skin I Live In lacks, but the truth is that despite all that I was still totally engaged with it, and some months after first seeing it, I’m easily lured into thinking about it, drawn into conversations about it. It’s fleshy, prompts goosebumps, and gets under the skin.