Pedro Almodóvar's cinema is all about looking—at people and the fabulous art they hang on their walls, the glamorous work that passionately stirs or bores them, the florid clothes they wear and often foist from their hungry bodies, their beautifully expressive faces—and how looking rouses the senses, provoking passion that can turn as easily to sex as it can to murder, sometimes both at once. Ruby-red lips and plump rumps are seductions and the deep grain of the voice an aphrodisiac, and the spectacularly hyper-stylized construction of Almodóvar's films embody not only the near-constant appetite of his characters for sensual stimulation, but his audience's own obsession with visual pleasure. But sometimes in Almodóvar's cinema, as in The Skin I Live In, looking isn't always the same as seeing.
Almodóvar's latest tells the story of a mad plastic surgeon, Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), infatuated with constructing beautiful surfaces. Mad because his wife committed suicide after she caught her reflection in a glass one day and saw a once-beautiful face and body burned beyond recognition in a car accident. Mad because his daughter, a little kooky even before watching her mother jump to her death, also kills herself—by leaping from her own private prison at an insane asylum, taken there by the father she's unable to tell apart from the man who didn't, unbeknownst to everyone but the audience, rape her outside of a dinner party. Mad because it becomes his obsession to synthesize a fire-resistant skin that will not only revolutionize science, but allow him to essentially reanimate all that he's lost.
If this all sounds as convoluted and humorless as Broken Embraces, it is. Looks can be and usually are deceiving in The Skin I Live In and secrets are beyond abundant. The car accident that horribly burned Robert's wife was caused by the brother, Zeca (Roberto Álamo), Robert doesn't know he has—and, it so happens, never will. Their mother? The housekeeper, Marilia (Marisa Paredes), who practically raised Robert and now keeps watch of the impossibly beautiful stranger, Vera (Elena Anaya), who lives in a room in the debonair doc's manse. Robert will also never know that Marilia is his real mother, and so the only purpose this unnecessarily elaborate secret history serves is to mundanely rationalize Robert's unethical experiment in transgenics, because as Marilia puts it, “I've got insanity in my entrails.”
Almodóvar's sensual use of flashback can be teasing. The film's most devious cut isn't any that Robert performs with his scalpel on Vera—burned in a different sense, it turns out, than the doctor's dead wife—or her daughter's rapist, Vicente (Jan Cornet), whom he kidnaps one night and holes up in the basement of his house, but a cross-fade between past and present events that subtly, delicately gives the impression of The Skin I Live In's characters all sharing the same psychic headspace. That this subliminal inkling comes to admittedly shocking fruition almost justifies the story's convolutions of plot, but Almodóvar shies away from true insight into Robert's unconscious desires, failing even to implicate the audience in the man's perverse quest for perfection and regeneration.
The Skin I Live In doesn't lack for great moments: the wet light-brown shirt that clings to a panicked Vicente's shivering, delicate body, a sight that would seem to subconsciously inspire Robert's weird science; the doctor's careful, precise cultivation of the fire-resistant skin he implants onto Vera; and the framing of the audience's perspective in an early scene in which Robert peers at Vera's gloriously curvy body from an adjacent room, as if he were taking in an almost holy work of Renaissance art. But the sum is less than its parts, because while there's a sense of constant confinement in the film, for all the elegant visual motifs—skin, walls, doors, television screens, paintings—that express how the body is perpetually contained, there's no understanding for the sexual and emotional nature of Robert's compulsion.
Blame Almodóvar for saddling Banderas with such a dull cipher. Though we get a sense for Robert's manic cleanliness in and out of the operating room and his taste for fine art, which he seems to share with many of the director's characters since the equally tony Talk to Her, his experiment in transgenics (a process that's explained, painfully and over-expositorily, by a doctor, played by José Luis Gómez, in the film's dinner-party sequence) never resonates with the necessary poignancy—as a pursuit of sad, desperate, and perverse happiness. This is because Almodóvar, in his desire to preserve the film's greatest shock for as long as he possibly can, squanders what could have been an audaciously confrontational inquiry into the nature of identity and the fluidity of sexual desire. This is a beautiful vision, but in telling too many flowery secrets, it's also one that unnecessarily keeps its queerness in the closet.