An obsessively driven plastic surgeon named Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) painstakingly works on a secret project within his home laboratory. His aim is to develop synthetic skin that is impervious to basic diseases and offers a degree of heat resistance. He sounds like a minor-key antagonist for James Bond, especially thanks to the secret hideaway and the mysteriously beautiful test subject, Vera Cruz (Elena Anaya) who is anything but a helpless victim. Vera knows Ledgard is watching her every move and she goes to great lengths to disrupt his efforts, although it becomes clear that each and every one of her life-imperiling ploys gets Ledgard one step closer to his goal.
But there is so much more going on beneath the surface of this thin-skinned veneer, this shell of a synopsis. My initial and rather simplistic take on The Skin I Live In fails to acknowledge the pain fueling Ledgard’s maniacal genius. Ledgard lost both his wife and daughter in melodramatic fashion and the scars of those losses cut deeply into his psyche, leaving him with a smooth mask of a face that he wears over his open and still bleeding wounds. We see the cold eyes, the stress and age etchings, and the mouth that no longer smiles and realize that life fled Ledgard.
Of course, Ledgard harkens back to an earlier figure in the Pedro Almodovar oeuvre, back, in fact, over 20 years to 1990. Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! presented a man recently released from a mental hospital who lasers in on a porn star he once had sex with, tracking her down in order to convince her to be his wife and when she refuses, he ties her up until she falls in love with him. The man, Ricky, crazed and young, had unbridled passion, wild eyes and dark beauty on his side. Ricky was alive, too much so to appreciate the notion that there was any narrative other than his own.
It is intriguing to see Banderas in both of these men. Tie Me Up! was the last time he worked with Almodovar; he took his raw handsome heart to Hollywood where its chaotic beating had to be tamed and caged. Banderas never found a soapy dreamweaver to match his fierce explosive passion and it could be argued that he died, just a little bit, each year, every time he took on a role that anesthetized the life right out of him. He loved Tom Hanks in Philadelphia. He vamped it up in Interview With the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles, but we were supposed to believe that Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt had more bite. He sashayed through a couple of Zorro movies, more than his share of Robert Rodriguez one-man shows, and put a little puss in boots in the Shrek series. Talk about dying a little with every performance.
And now, he returns to Almodovar who has taken off on a different arc. The Spanish writer-director has strutted his way onto the international stage, embracing and flaunting the wildness of obsession, love and lust, and the over-sized set pieces knock, knock, knocking around in his head. With The Skin I Live In, Almodovar astutely assesses where Banderas is, what is left of that young heartbreaker, and shuffles him through this game of camp inspired by Brian DePalma and Alfred Hitchcock, but pushed to more daring lengths. This is high camp, a pulpy reunion and maybe a sign that there could still be a little more life left in Banderas. He just needs to rip off that old dead skin from his Hollywood days and soak up some more of Almodovar’s crazy white-hot brilliance. (tt stern-enzi)