When The Skin I Live In (La piel que inhabito) premiered last month, Slate culture critic June Thomas wrote an exhaustive list of the recurring images, plot points, themes, and actors in Pedro Almodóvar’s movies. But I’ve been exhausted by the self-recycling and auto-homage in Almodóvar’s work for quite a while — since the mid-2000s, in fact. I appreciated Volver much more than I liked it, and watching Broken Embraces felt more like an obligation than a treat. (That’s not a criticism of those films or of Penélope Cruz; my unenthused reaction was merely the result of my Almodóvar binges of years past.) So I went into The Skin I Live In with low expectations (for pleasure, not cinematic craft). About half an hour into The Skin I Live In, I began to wonder if, despite the uncharacteristically Gothic tone and unfamiliar quasi-medieval setting, the only pleasure Almodóvar offered me now was his impeccable taste in dramatic interior design. I was happy to be swiftly proved wrong: The Skin I Live In is a spellbinding, narratively complex revenge/love/sci-fi story somewhere between Pygmalion and Frankenstein that explores more deeply than any of the director’s other films the creepy, morbid, even macabre side of love.
If you haven’t seen the film yet, do yourself a huge favor and watch it unspoiled. The film answers the questions it poses — Who is the body-stockinged woman (Elena Ayana) that a plastic surgeon (Antonio Banderas) has trapped in his home? Why won’t he let her leave? And why does Banderas’ housekeeper (Almodóvar veteran Marisa Paredes) want the mystery woman killed? — rather languorously, and much of the viewer’s pleasure lies in guessing, then being shocked by, the twisted relationships between the characters. (If you must spoil yourself, click here.) Much like 2004′s Bad Education, Skin asks the viewer mid-way through the film to reconsider her sympathies for the protagonist by methodically revealing the murky but depraved motivations and desires of the mad doctor, thereby blurring the categories of (anti)hero and villain.
There are almost as many rapes in Almodóvar’s films as women on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and Skin features two rape scenes of different women. For a director known and admired for his fully developed female characters, Almodóvar has gotten into occasional trouble with the P.C. police for his idiosyncratic rape scenes, most notably for Kika (1994), in which he attempts a humorous rape scene. (Almodóvar’s experiment earned the film a virtual ban in the U.S.*) Jason Mittell, a media scholar, observes that “rape is a more taboo and emotionally volatile crime to portray on-screen than murder” — a situation that undoubtedly attracts the provocateur in Almodóvar to the topic. Several critics describe Skin as cold, clinical, and emotionally unengaging. While the film is indeed elegant and medical, I found it to be quite emotionally engrossing, and wonder if those critics found their sympathies for the characters inhibited by the fact that Almodóvar offers redemption to one of the rapist characters.
* Almodóvar’s take on the rape scenes of Kika and Vera, the mystery woman in Skin: The rape of Kika, like the rape of Vera, are terrible events, but they happen to two extremely strong women who have decided that they’re going to survive whatever happens to them, including the rape. At the moment, during the rape, when the victims try to talk to their rapists, it creates a kind of comic effect. Some people are outraged that there’s a comic aspect to those rape scenes, but I think you have to take it as it is. I’m not joking about rape at all, but sometimes in the course of the most terrible events, when somebody has decided that they’re going to survive, they may say or do things that appear comic to the spectator.