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.

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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.