Mysterious ‘Skin’

Almodovar’s psycho-sexual sci-fi comes off without a Hitch(cock)

DR. FEELGOOD | A surgeon (Antonio Banderas) holds a woman (Elena Anaya) captive for inscrutable reasons in a great thriller from Pedro Almodovar.

Life+Style Editor

At his best, Pedro Almodovar is a master of outrageous antics like Fellini and the tense, driving, investigative thrills of Hitchcock, though seldom in the same movie; at his worst, he allows mawkish sentimentality to be his undoing.

He’s finally hit the sweet spot with The Skin I Live In, a rangy, intoxicatingly compulsive mystery that blends spectacle with sci-fi with the cool suspense of David Cronenberg. Better yet, it explores big emotional themes that are as extreme as the crazed plot but frighteningly relateable.

The film, set one year in the future, reunites Almodovar with the Spanish actor he made a star, Antonio Banderas, for the first time in 21 years. Banderas, at 51, still has smoldering good looks and a dangerousness brooding under a controlled, respectable exterior.

He plays Robert Ledgard, a plastic surgeon who has pioneered an artificial skin that will revolutionize the treatment of burn victims — a passion, since his own wife was horribly disfigured a decade before. His methods skirt medical ethics, however, so his colleagues don’t know Robert has been experimenting on Vera (Elena Anaya), a prisoner in his house who has been changed, slowly but inevitably, into The Perfect Woman.

Is Vera his Frankenstein’s Monster? His reincarnated dead wife? A hapless victim? The plot unfolds (in true Almodovar fashion, non-linearly) with a cool, voyeuristic intensity (accented by the finest mood-enhancing pulsating score, by Alberto Iglesias, in any movie since Atonement). While it leaps around — to topics like home invasion, rape, parent-child relationships and homosexuality — eventually the structure reveals itself, with the creepiness of Vertigo meets The Fly meets Chinatown. Maybe if directed by Kubrick. Or Tom Ford.

If that sounds puzzling, The Skin I Live In is something of a Rubik’s cube, disorienting but with the promise of figuring it out always just around the corner.

Banderas, who has wasted his time with his earthy accent doing voice-overs in recent years, roars back as a compelling leading man. Anaya’s sexually daring performance is matched only by her pristine beauty. As a cat-and-mouse thriller, this is thoughtful and smart; the fact it’s from Almodovar means it’s far more interesting than any other movies out now that you’re likely to see. If you’re debating what to see this week, that’s an easy call: Vote for Pedro.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 4, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

What’s Brewing: Dad says gay teen’s death not suicide; ex-cop gets jail in rape of transsexual

Lance Lundsten

1. Gay Minnesota teen Lance Lundsten was laid to rest Tuesday night, but questions remain about what caused his death. Some news reports have suggested that Lundsten, 18, took his own life in response to anti-gay bullying at school. However, Lundsten’s father maintains that he died from coronary edema, a condition caused by an enlarged heart. Autopsy results will take several weeks.

2. A former San Antonio police officer accused of raping a transsexual prostitute was sentenced to one year in jail on Tuesday. The former officer, Craig Nash, pleaded guilty to official oppression after prosecutors agreed in exchange not to charge him with sexual assault by a police officer, which carries a life sentence. Prosecutors also agreed not to pursue an allegation by a man who said Nash raped him a few years earlier.

3. A federal appeals court in Louisiana today will hear a case involving two gay dads who simply want both of their names listed on their adopted child’s birth certificate. A federal district judge and a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals have already ruled in the gay couple’s favor, but the bigoted state attorney general is appealing the decision. The couple is represented by Lambda Legal’s Ken Upton of Dallas, who warns of a “gaping loophole” in the doctrine of full faith and credit if the decision is overturned: “An exception that permits states arbitrarily to ignore legal parent-child relationships as families travel throughout the United States would create unprecedented chaos and harm.”

—  John Wright