By Nick Schager
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By Stephanie Zacharek
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By Alan Scherstuhl
By Ciara LaVelle
By Chuck Wilson
The morality of the mad-scientist tale has remained more or less fixed since the beginning of sound cinema: From Dr. Frankenstein's hubristic claim to "know what it feels like to be God," to Jurassic Park's criticism of "scientists [who] were so preoccupied with whether they could that they didn't stop to think if they should," these are generally stories about scientific innovators who are essentially good men — or were until they got so carried away with their own powers of creation that they lost sight of their innovation's implications and suffered the consequences.
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The main narrative strand of Pedro Almodóvar's The Skin I Live In hews to that template, but to unusual ends. A postmodern homage to Hitchcock, which raises the Master of Suspense's implicit sexual obsessions to the textual level, this film has a moral compass that's totally, thrillingly whacked, as Almodóvar dispenses with traditional notions of good versus evil, victim versus perpetrator. It's a horror story with constantly shifting subjectivity.
Based on Thierry Jonquet's novel Tarantula, Almodóvar's 18th feature stars Antonio Banderas as Robert Ledgard, a plastic surgeon who develops a revolutionary new human skin that ultimately plays a role in the doctor's diabolical plot to avenge the deaths of his wife and daughter. The link between Dr. Ledgard's invention and that payback is Vera (Elena Anaya), a beautiful patient whom the doctor keeps in a two-way-mirror-equipped room in the palatial home he shares with his longtime maid (Marisa Paredes). It's probably not much of a surprise that no member of this triangle is exactly who they seem to be, but to explain more about Skin's relationships would spoil much of the pleasure in this ever-unfurling, ultimately infuriating web of a film, which is constantly veering off into flashbacks and then hurtling forward into a "present" seen through the eyes of unreliable narrators.
The film is most exciting at its most disorienting, mired in a dreamlike state of confusion that Almodóvar produces masterfully but does not let last too long. It turns out that one of the director's first shots, a pan across a Louise Bourgeois coffee-table book, offers both a key to the movie's themes — the Bourgeoisian territory of father-daughter relationships, sexuality as vulnerability, the body as a construction, and the multiple connotations of "cells" — and an introduction to its habit of short-circuiting the viewer's imagination by literally placing explanatory texts center screen. Taking a good deal of its running time to supply all of the backstory necessary to fully understand its first string of images, The Skin I Live In ends with no plot hole left unfilled.
To this end, the film deflates in its final third, with crude matter-of-fact set pieces, dumb explanatory psychology, and bursts of intentional camp overwhelming and canceling out the unmoored creepiness. You could say Almodóvar makes the classic mistake of the mad scientist: In doing a postmodern reinvention of old-fashioned thriller tropes, he gets so caught up in the experiment that he kills the basic pleasures of the genre.
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