Luscious visuals have long defined Pedro Almodovar's films, and that's true of his latest, "The Skin I Live In," as well. It's beautifully shot, crisp and vibrant, and features impeccable production design as you would expect from the detail-oriented Spanish master.
But it might almost be too pristine, at the expense of real emotional engagement. It might sound easy to remark that a movie about skin feels too superficial, but that's unfortunately the case here.
As Almodovar so often does, he's packed "The Skin I Live In" with references to many other films and filmmakers that came before him, from "Frankenstein" to Hitchcock. But this time they feel more like appreciative shout-outs rather than allusions that truly inform the narrative.
And oh, what a convoluted narrative it is (Almodovar shares screenwriting credit with Agustin Almodovar, based on a story written by Thierry Jonquet). "The Skin I Live In" takes an awfully long time to set up the tortured histories and intertwined relationships that are the basis for the film's big, shocking climax. By the time that comes, this feels almost like a parody of Almodovar, with its melodramatic tone and themes of gender, identity, sex and revenge.
Antonio Banderas, who made his name in Almodovar films more than two decades ago, reunites with the director as Dr. Robert Ledgard, a brilliant and renowned but tormented plastic surgeon. Having lost his wife in a fiery car accident a dozen years ago, he's now obsessed with creating a stronger kind of synthetic skin, no matter the cost. Banderas, who can be so sexy and charismatic, dials it down here and keeps his character's pain within. Robert is no mad scientist; his primary, defining personality trait is his quiet drive.
Inside his stately Toledo mansion, he's built a high-tech laboratory. He's also outfitted the place with flat-screen monitors throughout, to make it easier to keep an eye on his guinea pig in this process: the beautiful Vera (Elena Anaya), who's being held captive inside one of the many bedrooms. Marilia (the formidable Marisa Paredes), Robert's longtime housekeeper who also keeps all his secrets (along with plenty of her own), looks on disapprovingly.
We get our first glimpse of Vera in voyeuristic fashion as she stretches and twists her lean body into various yoga poses - but she's doing them in a nude-colored, skin-tight body stocking to protect her from the elements. Flashbacks reveal who she is and how she got there, as well as the troubled story of the doctor's teenage daughter (Blanca Suarez) and the young man she met at a party one fateful night (Jan Cornet). We wouldn't dream of giving anything away, plus it's just too damned complicated to get into.
But how Vera truly feels about her fate - even as she appears to embrace her new life - remains a frustrating mystery. That's also the prevailing sensation you'll walk away with after seeing this rare miss from Almodovar.
"The Skin I Live In"
The Sony Pictures Classics release is rated R for disturbing violent content including sexual assault, strong sexuality, graphic nudity, drug use and language. Running time: 117 minutes.