Some tales are so tall they deserve to simply be, well, told. No exploring themes, no developing deep characters—just someone saying, “Have I got a story for you,” then plunging ahead with an addictive narrative. In The Skin I Live in, Antonio Banderas plays Robert Ledgard, a surgeon developing a skin that will not burn. His guinea pig is Vera (Elena Anaya), a pretty, young woman held against her will in his remote Toledo estate. We do not (yet) know how she got there, who she is or why Robert—whose accomplice is his mom (Marisa Paredes)—obsessively monitors her on a screen in his bedroom. We do not know why she seems laidback, not feisty, casually killing time with yoga and arts and crafts.
Just what in the hell is going on here is the primary—really, the only—concern of director Pedro Almodóvar, here offering his bizarre interpretation of a horror picture. The secret being concealed is delightfully fucked up—as opposed to simply fucked up, like, say, The Human Centipede—and it would be cruel to spoil it and rob audiences of the enjoyment of slowing realizing what’s going on. At this point, Almodóvar is such a confident filmmaker that he takes his sweet time in revealing the truth, dedicating the entire mid-section to an explanatory flashback so protracted that you can picture the director mischeviously smiling from the wings.
The Skin I Live In is spiritual cousins to Errol Morris’ Tabloid , another wild story—in that case, real—presented by a master filmmaker in the most entertaining way possible. In both cases, it’s at the expense of some potential richness, although it’s even more noticeable in the Almodóvar. Skin , culled from Thierry Jonquet’s novel Tarantula , coincidentally features many of the director’s pet themes, but whereas he would typically explore them, here he breezes right though, never letting himself get distracted by anything not related to plot and pace. Which is fine, although it’s possible the film would seem less noticeably hollow if its ending wasn’t a fat anticlimax, or if Banderas were allowed to let loose with the scenery-chewing he regularly does for Hollywood. He’s the calmest mad scientist ever played by someone who’s played Zorro.