Like a Spanish Woody Allen, Pedro Almodóvar has directed a movie every year or two since 1978, and if not every one is great, almost all are worth seeing. And like a latter-day Douglas Sirk, Almodóvar loves stories about gorgeous, creamily photographed people who commit soap-operatic acts in picturesque settings. His subversive sense of humor and convoluted plots, which often circle back through time, keep his films from being merely melodramatic, but at their worst they can seem frenetic, all color-saturated surface and no substance.
The Skin I Live In lacks the fire and emotional depth of his best work, which includes the brilliant four-film streak that started with All About My Mother in 1999 and ended with Volver in 2006. But it digs deep into the aging wunderkind’s bag of tricks to keep us entertained while slipping in a few pointed observations about how our bodies define us and what people—particularly women—will endure to survive.
The sometimes overly complicated plot begins with a mysterious captive, the almost inhumanly beautiful Vera (Elena Anaya), who lives in a large room in the luxurious but sterile home of Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas). Projected on a huge monitor so Dr. Ledgard and his rabidly protective housekeeper (Marisa Paredes) can watch her 24/7, Vera is clearly the subject of some kind of experiment by the doctor, who is developing a genetically engineered form of artificial skin, but his obsession with her seems more than medical, despite the purely clinical way in which he insists on treating her.
To reveal just what the doctor has done to Vera and why, Almodóvar tells us a series of overlapping tales that would feel right at home on a telenovela, with their news of horrific disfigurement, kidnapping and torture, experimental surgery performed without the consent of the patient, unacknowledged children, fraticide, suicide, and rape, both real and imagined.
The eye in the center of this hurricane, Vera remains studiously impassive in the present, but as flashbacks explain how she got that way, her porcelain surface takes on new depth. Whether she’s submitting to a rape in order to stay alive, playing on the doctor’s growing lust/love in order to break free of the prison of her room, or simply submitting to the hungry gaze that always follows her, she becomes the personification of womanhood in a paternalistic world.
The 49th New York Film festival runs from September 30 to October 16. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.