Dir. Pedro Almodovar
(2011, R, 117 min)

In his previous films, I’ve admired the elegant musicality of director Pedro Almodovar; his style is so rhythmic you could almost dance to it. Like much of his other work, The Skin I Live In is distinguished by outlandish melodrama, but the emotional warmth that accompanied recent films like Talk to Her and Volver is replaced here by a cold, steady detachment. There are hints of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, blended with telenovela, with a hint of horror movie. It’s an effective thriller, though with such an off-the-wall story Almodovar’s icy approach feels almost like holding back. If ever there was a time to go full-bore, it’s a gonzo experimental-surgery drama.

To describe the plot risks giving too much away, so I’ll tread lightly. Antonio Banderas plays Robert, a doctor developing a form of artificial skin resistant to burning. He is inspired by the death of his wife in a fiery car accident, and possibly also by the loss of his daughter, whose circumstances eventually become clear. Robert is secretly testing his invention on a human patient, Vera (Elena Anaya), with whom he is infatuated. Vera is kept closely guarded in his house, and we’re told she bears a striking resemblance to his late wife.

I’ll say no more. The story twists are macabre – though Almodovar shows his hand a little too early, in a brief foreshadowing shot I won’t describe, lest I show his hand. The plot unfolds itself methodically, assuredly, teasing us with mysteries and then paying off our curiosity. Almodovar is a rare director of melodramas for whom “melodrama” isn’t pejorative. He seems to enjoy and respect the form, and he executes it with skillful craft and a sense of the joy of storytelling. I’ve seen better films from him, but as yet I haven’t seen a bad one.