Jigsaw Puzzle, by David Bax

Watching Pedro Almodovar’s newest film, The Skin I Live In, my mind kept returning to the Ship of Theseus, the paradoxical parable that wonders if a ship that, over its decades of existence, eventually has every piece of itself replaced remains the same ship. This ancient philosophical question is particularly appropriate to a movie that takes place in a world much like ours except that the possibilities of plastic surgery are far more advanced. I also, of course, thought many times of Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, a brilliant film to which this one, at least in its premise, owes a great deal.

The plot has so many twists that there’s little I can relate of it without landing squarely in spoiler territory. What I can tell you is that Antonio Banderas plays a renowned plastic surgeon named Robert whose wife died in a fiery car crash many years before the film takes place. He is currently keeping a woman named Vera, played by Elena Anaya, in his home against her will, slowly transforming her to look more like his late spouse. After a series of traumatic events, the movie flashes back to a slightly earlier time in Robert’s life – though still after his wife’s death – and details another horrible event that befell him. From that point on, the film teases out the way these two storylines are related. Even though you may guess the link early on, as I did, you’ll still want to keep watching to see just how things play out.

Clearly, with the issues of the transformation of the human body and my Ship of Theseus reference above, this is a film about identity. It’s also, however, a revenge film. There are at least two, maybe more, wronged parties in this tale and they are working toward doling out retribution. It’s to Almodovar’s credit as a writer (adapting Thierry Jonquet’s novel Tarantula) that our degree of sympathy in regards to these people’s plans is never constant. The other, even more commendable aspect is the fact that the identity and revenge themes are not at odds with or even parallel to one another but are strikingly tied together. When a person pursues vengeance for long enough, the film seems to state, it can come to define them. These individuals’ quests are no longer about repayment but are simply a way of life.

Almodovar sets his labyrinthine story against a striking visual backdrop. Robert’s home, where most of the action takes place, is precisely devised and appointed. The camera explores this and other spaces with a measured determination, only moving out of functional necessity but never blending in. The filmmaker is undeniably present in every shot. The film is aesthetically designed in the same exacting way that Vera is. As thematically fulfilling as that approach is, it’s also the only real drawback. With an approach as clinical as this one, it’s far easier to appreciate intellectually than emotionally.

Partially, that effect is also due to some of Almodovar’s usual obdurate gaze. As in many of his other films, though possibly even more so here, a number of horrific things happen to people. Almodovar presents these things frankly and without flinching but with a largely unemotional, maybe even a little bemused, distance. The effect of this choice is to make brutal and gruesome events, of which the movie has its share, simultaneously more and less disturbing than a more sentimental or anguished telling would.

Banderas, an actor who presence I’ve always enjoyed, outstrips himself here in what may be the best performance of his career. His standard charm, as applied to Robert, becomes a very thin façade, making it more troubling than anything. Its obvious falseness is only the first hint that he is a very disturbed man. Anaya, who has been a standout in films such as Sex and Lucia and Almodovar’s Talk to Her, is equally strong in this film. While it’s often hard to guess what’s going on in Vera’s mind, there’s no doubt that it’s something highly intelligent.

In a way, it feels strange to refer to a film like this, that concerns itself with the human body to a Cronenbergian degree, as cerebral. Yet it’s that dichotomy that makes The Skin I Live In so remarkable, not to mention recommendable. For those of us sensitive to subjects like mutilation and rape, it may be occasionally – but respectably – unpleasant to watch. But there aren’t very many films quite like it.

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