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Skin I Live In, The (2011)

Drama Rated R

The distinction of The Skin I Live In isn’t its oddness – this is Pedro Almodovar, after all – but rather its unpleasantness, a trait that’s missing from Almodovar’s other features. They almost all share a bizarre mixing of gender and identity (especially Bad Education, which may be The Skin I Live In‘s closest relative). What they also share however – and what’s missing here – is Almodovar’s most distinguishing characteristic: compassion.

At first, we seem to be in for more of Almodovar’s flamboyant fun, an exhilarating mix of storytelling gymnastics and pure movie love. Antonio Banderas stars as Robert Ledgard, a cosmetic surgeon who has imprisoned a young woman (a dewy Elena Anaya) in his elaborate home medical facility. She’s something of a work in progress – wearing a beige bodysuit and subjected to mysterious procedures – but we’re not quite sure from what, and toward what end. Banderas as a modern-day Frankenstein? An art-film take on B movies like Atom Age Vampire? Count me in.

Unfortunately, The Skin I Live In proceeds toward far less entertaining territory, including two crucial plot points that turn on instances of rape. Almodovar is no stranger to tragedy – his great Volver has tinges of it – but The Skin I Live In goes beyond tragedy and into bitterness. Sexuality here is akin to trauma and pain has no catharsis.

Almodovar the sexual nihilist? Not exactly. The plot details of the movie read that way, but Almodovar gives them his usual lively sheen – bright colors, a mod mise-en-scene, theatrical performances. The result is a troubling sort of dissonance. Almost every Almodovar movie is garish, but this is garish in all the wrong ways.