For the great Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar, those nails include the boundaries of sexual identity and sexual perversion, and his “mommy issues.” All are touched on and one gets quite the going over in “The Skin I Live In,” a rare unpleasant evening at the movies from the director of “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” and “Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down.” It’s as disquieting as it is unsatisfying, a slog through gender issues, surgery and violence — sexual and otherwise.
Antonio Banderas plays a brilliant plastic surgeon and scientist with “issues” all his own. He has developed a way of growing artificial skin that threatens to cross the lines of medical ethics. But in his suburban Toledo mansion, he has his own lab where he can experiment far away from the prying eyes of his peers. That’s where he keeps his greatest creation, Vera (Elena Anaya) under what resembles house arrest. There appears to be an intense attraction between them. No, he’s not at home when his thuggish half-brother drops by and rapes her. But the attraction is discomfitingly still there in Almodovar’s world.
In a long flashback, Almodovar, adapting a Thierry Jonquet novel, tells us the Gothic story of how this bizarre situation came to be, of the tragedies in the doctor’s past, the first time he crossed paths with Vera. It’s a real eye-roller of a personal history.
In the present, Vera flirts with the doctor with “I’m made to measure for you,” while the housekeeper (Marisa Paredes) casts dark warnings — “If you don’t kill her, she will kill herself.”
It’s a film of crime and punishment, guilt and madness. And it’s all just a bit much, even for a director who gained his name through perverse excesses and sexually off-putting juxtapositions. Blood and death and sex and surgery aren’t meant to be titillating when run through a blender together, though that seems to be Almodovar’s challenge. Watch these two beautiful actors , with the stunning Anaya often filmed in see-how-perfect-she-is close-ups, and try not to root them into bed together. Since we guess, fairly early on, why that’s not a good idea, “Skin I Live In” plays like a prolonged wallow in revulsion, a movie that has us thinking “Ewwwwwwww” no matter what the subtitles translate on the screen.
Yes, he’s still pounding the same nails he always has. But “Skin” makes it seem that the nail Almodovar is most intently pounding here is the confused and put-off filmgoer.
MPAA Rating: R for disturbing violent content including sexual assault, strong sexuality, graphic nudity, drug use and language
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marsia Paredes
Credits: Written and directed by Pedro Almodovar, adapted from the novel by Thierry Jonquet. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 1:57