Like most films by Pedro Almodóvar, the meaning behind The Skin I Live In has little to do with its actual plot. Perhaps harking back to his more macabre early cinema, the 62-year-old director presents a rather mannered specimen of body horror, grafting what amounts to an antiseptic approximation of Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face—or an art-house version of The Human Centipede—onto a story that is, in the end, All About Almodóvar.
In The Skin I Live In, former cast regular Antonio Banderas reteams with Almodóvar after a 21-year hiatus for a movie that shares themes with their last collaboration, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! Banderas plays Robert Ledgard, a plastic surgeon who responds to his wife's violent death by creating a synthetic skin derived from pig flesh that is resistant to heat, infection and other maladies. Although the scientific community shuns Ledgard's discovery, the doctor has been secretly testing his developmental dermis on Vera (Elena Anaya), a brunette locked behind the gates of Ledgard's Toledo estate. Vera, clad in a flesh-colored body stocking, wiles away her days by reading, practicing yoga and scrawling on the walls of her well-furnished but sterile one-room home, visible only via video surveillance monitored by the doctor's longtime housekeeper Marilia (Marisa Paredes) and through a two-way mirror that separates Vera from Ledgard's bedroom.
Is Vera a patient or prisoner, a convalescing medical marvel or bride of Frankenstein? Almodóvar caps the carefully contrived mystery enveloping the film's first act with the sudden arrival of Marilia's fugitive son, a snarling reprobate camouflaged in a carnival tiger costume.
These events segue into an extended flashback that introduces the doctor's traumatized daughter (Blanca Suarez) and her own purported rapist (Jan Cornet) into the narrative. This jarring background and its campy climax provide explication, but at the expense of nuance.
The Skin I Live In is a hyper-realized illustration of Almodóvar's fondness for audience manipulation. It's the only persuasive explanation for an erratic story that would have more impact and clarity if its narrative were more linear. Instead, Almodóvar has other aims, toying with viewers' emotions and sexual mores. Actions in the film's first half that are teeming with titillation soon become objects of repulsion, a metamorphosis triggered simply by storytelling and not any change in onscreen personnel.
But while the film is partly a mirror reflecting the audience's psyche, it is more a window into Almodóvar's. The director transforms this adaptation of Thierry Jonquet's novel Tarantula into a gory film à clef. We also learn offhandedly that Vera's last name is Cruz—indeed, the longer the film goes, the more Anaya conspicuously resembles Almodóvar's great muse Penélope (who was originally slated to play Vera).
Through Ledgard, Almodóvar projects his own creative complexities, an exercise that manages to be both self-deprecating and self-aggrandizing. Viewed cynically, he essentially equates actors with livestock—swine, if you will—that only mature through the guidance of his nurturing hands. At the same time, Almodóvar juxtaposes the chaos of creation with the beauty it can yield. For Ledgard (and, by extension, Almodóvar), Vera is no mere muse. She—like the recurrent members of the filmmaker's renowned acting stable—is an objet d'art, a work of splendor born out of brilliance, obsession and, yes, madness.
Still, none of this makes The Skin I Live In more than a bizarre but surprisingly bloodless curio. Absent its distinctive tableau and knotty plot twists, the film is a must-see only for Almodóvar diehards. Everyone else will be left wondering whether Javier Bardem has ever gone by the nickname El Tigre.