The Skin I Live In - Antonio Banderas and Elena Anaya
Dr Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) has a twisted obsession with his prisoner/patient/lover Vera (Elena Anaya) © 2011 El Deseo

Sexy, strange, sophisticated and sort of sick, The Skin I Live In is the latest appealing erotic oddity from director/writer Pedro Almodóvar. The movie is missing his frequent muse Penélope Cruz, but newcomer Elena Anaya is a flawless female fantasy who could be Cruz’s sister.

That perfection is a crucial plot point. Anaya plays Vera, the unwilling and imprisoned subject of suave plastic surgeon Dr Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas). Locked in a clinically uncluttered bedroom of Ledgard’s opulent mansion and under constant camera surveillance, Vera has been physically remodeled and virtually reupholstered with a gradual but complete skin replacement. Growing and applying that bio-mutated “best skin in the world” is both unethical and illegal, but the brilliant Dr Ledgard has turned the frequently unclothed Vera into a goddess-like work of art.

Saying much more about the plot would spoil the screenplay’s bizarre surprises, which go down some very unexpected avenues. Banderas is excellently understated as Dr Ledgard, a cool but conflicted character with a definite method to his quiet madness. Sure, he’s an opium-smoking control freak, but he’s neither a wild-eyed Dr Frankenstein nor a Dead Ringers-psychotic Dr Mantle. The man’s a maniac, but he’s also a romantic.

Anaya is ethereally feminine as Vera, whether doing silent yoga exercises in a flesh-colored neck-to-toes bodysuit or lounging naked in bed. When this living doll tells Dr Ledgard that “I’m made to measure for you,” it’s no metaphor.

The tone of this sometimes grim fairy tale severely shifts at one point to include a rape that may have been intended as tongue-in-cheek black humor — the perpetrator is dressed in a bad tiger costume — but is too off-puttingly creepy to be amusing. (The overloud giggles of some male audience members during this attack were almost more disturbing than the sexual violence onscreen. Those guys really must have busted a gut at Irreversible.)

Norma (Blanca Suárez) and Vicente (Jan Cornet) © 2011 El Deseo

Ledgard’s daughter Norma (Blanca Suárez), psychologically damaged since the death of her mother, suffers a similar fate when she takes an ill-advised trip down the garden path with a pill-popping stranger named Vicente (Jan Cornet). That’s something else to keep in mind when making your date-night moviegoing plans, if you or your beloved is the sensitive type.

The film effectively flips back and forth in time, eventually meshing all of its offbeat elements into a climax that’s so weird you’ll be amazed it actually works. Although the movie is close to two hours long, its final scene ends before a character can react to some rather startling news. As kinky and unlikely as this princess-in-a-tower fable may be, it’s impossible not to want just a little bit more.

[Rating: 3.5 stars]

James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer. More by James Dawson