This image captures the essence of the film, which is actually a chimera: part science fiction, part mad scientist horror, part body horror, part Shakespearean tragedy, part psychological thriller, part character study… it is only fitting that a film about transformation and manipulation be so mercurial.

The Skin I Live In is a fairly twisted and intricate film. The non-sequential narrative also leaves a lot of room for fun theories about what the fuck is going on with these characters. Pedro Almodovar (director and co-writer) and his writing partners place an interesting red herring in the science fictional “superskin” that dermatological inclined mad scientist Robert Ledgard develops. While the story is not heavily contingent on the science stuff, it’s there like so much else to add depth and scope to what is actually a very intimate film about manipulation of the flesh, mind, and soul and the lines of demarcation that exist between these categories.

I call The Skin I Live In intricate but some will feel it is convoluted. Partly this is because the film doesn’t follow a familiar narrative pace. It’s not especially long (117 minutes) but it may feel that way to viewers who aren’t caught up in the constant barrage of interesting shots, dialogue choices, and mysterious details which eventually coalesce into larger, almost unbelievable revelations. There’s a huge fucking twist in this film and though clever types will see it coming (especially people who like Korean films), the scifi red herring introduced early on as well as the brazen semi-tangents the film seems to indulge offer the ability to really run wild with speculation. That the movie is so dark while inviting this kind of fun is one of its truly refreshing qualities.

I mean look at this shot. The sequence itself feels like a non-sequitor due to the audience’s relative lack of information at this point, but you can’t argue with the dynamism in the sheer filmmaking which is so rarely capturable in a still image.

I think the best way to think of this film is as a dual character study rolled into a classic tragedy. I say classic not to declare the status of the film itself but in terms of its approach to the mode; if Shakespeare was into weird science, he might have come up with a play like The Skin I Live In.

The duality is comprised of Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) and the mysterious Vera (Elena Anaya). Robert is quickly revealed to be a brilliant dermatologist with some radical theories and political issues with others in his field. He is established as a driven and eccentric, mostly due to his troubled past which is fraught with pain and loss. Vera, on the other hand, is someone we know almost nothing about til fairly late in the film. We know she is practically a prisoner in Ledgard’s estate, her only contact with him via medical work and opium-fueled conversations (seriously) and his gruff maid (more of a nanny), Marilia (Marisa Paredes, also awesome in The Devil’s Backbone). She writes on the walls of her super clean room, wears a flesh-tone unitard, and is incredibly beautiful. She may also be suicidal.

As we learn more about these truly fucked up people and how they were brought to this point, it’s impossible not to feel sympathy for all of them. When Robert and Vera have their relationship recontextualized by a potent combination of danger and Robert’s burgeoning desires (predicated it seems on her resemblance, one which he manipulated, to his dead wife), you almost root for it because there’s a weird sweetness to it. It’s the kind of thing where, as it dawns on you just what went into this relationship, you get this dissonance between wanting these two to somehow find happiness (as twisted as it would be) in each other while also forced to acknowledge the evils committed to give them even the appearance of that chance.

Because all of this stuff is so delicate, it is high praise to say the actors pull it off beautifully. Antonio Banderas is a known quantity for me, but I’ve never seen him this good. He’s been more fun, sure, and he is an absolute charisma machine (even here, oddly enough) but there’s way more pathos in his Robert than I’m used to seeing from him. It was revelatory and makes me hope he settles into more meaty, dramatic roles as he gets older. Not that he seems to age much. His main counterpart, Elena Anaya who I only know from another recently viewed movie, Point Blank, where she is even more ridiculously beautiful. Anaya is a powerful presence in the movie, delivering emotional depth that you have to fathom without the full picture. She’s asked to create audience sympathy before the audience can fully understand why they should sympathize. Her delicate beauty definitely accounts for some of this but, like all good actors, she does 90% of the job with her eyes alone.

Vera’s physical appeal is leveraged toward the film’s themes of manipulation and power, acting as a representation of Robert’s twisted motives and desires while also engendering audience sympathy and stimulation which possibly reflects something dark about our desires too.

As I said before, the film is largely about manipulation. Vera, we learn, is a patient of Robert’s and subject to his experiments with a burn-proof, super resistant artificial skin. He is clearly manipulating her flesh while, once she becomes solidly more to him than a subject, she begins to counteract through manipulation of his emotions. She plays into his desire for her specifically as ell as his abject loneliness and yearning. Both of them seem to lose something of the “soul” in the process, a process which runs far deeper than it first appears.

The Spoilers I Live In

So there’s a missing piece to this puzzle, the character Vicente (Jan Cornet), a young man who is instrumental in the demise of Robert’s last grip on sanity: his daughter, Norma (Blanca Suarez). Norma was traumatized by her mother (and Robert’s wife)’s suicide after being horrifically burned in an accident which happened as a result of her adultery. So Robert is basically a swirl of “fuck my life” even before Norma is first institutionalized and then date-raped the first night she is released, by none other than Vicente.

Now while Vicente’s drug-fueled sexual assault doesn’t exactly earn him any favor, it bears mention that his behavior isn’t as bad as we might expect from a full-fledged rapist. It’s mostly irresponsible and selfish. Everything simply escalates from his eagerness and then his panicking when she starts to resist. I don’t want to seem like I’m downplaying the horror of sexual assault. I’m just looking at it from Vicente’s perspective where it is unlikely he intended for things to go that darkside. In other words, he does a horrible thing but may not be a horrible guy. Fair?

We never really find out what kind of guy Vicente will ultimately be since his personality is irrevocably transformed when Robert comes looking for him for vengeance after Norma follows her mother into death’s sweet embrace. Robert’s intentions aren’t clear until he begins to experiment on him, eventually turning him into Vera. There’s something satisfying about this form of vengeance, as overwhelmingly sinister as it is, in that Robert is turning Vicente into the subject of his own crime. This has an understandably extreme effect on Vicente’s psychology.

At first, Vicente has obvious Stockholm Syndrome but this eventually morphs into something else.

When Vicente seems to choose to be Vera, we can believe her (and call her her). It’s all a ruse, though, another layer of the manipulation being done in the film. Vera is actually pretty bold in persuading Robert to trust her, give her more freedom, etc. Yet, there’s something to their bond of co-dependence by this stage that makes the situation more complex. Yes, Vera kills Robert and Marilia and escapes, but a lot can probably be said about whether or not she always intended to do this and certainly whether or not her motives were as purely driven toward that purpose as they might appear by the end.

The ending is de facto great. Rather than having Vera go off to have a new life, which is the ideal ending for avoiding complications associated with the transformation that she has undergone, she actually goes back to her mother’s dress shop and faces both Vicente and whoever she has become. There’s a slight undertone of irony here that oddly sets off the challenging tone of the ending: Vicente previously flirted with his mother’s other employee, a woman who seems to be a lesbian and who is totally attracted to Vera when she first lays eyes on her. Earlier she had told him something like that he’d have to be a woman to have a shot with her. Kind of interesting touch, no?

Marisa Paredes rounds out the trio nicely, responsible for a lot of the exposition in the film. Some of it is a bit clunky, but Marilia is always an engaging character.

Aside from manipulation, The Skin I Live In may (more properly?) be understood as thematically focused on transformation. Vicente is some kind of sculptor who adds fabric and other materials to what look like mannequin heads; this foreshadows both what happens to him and how he handles it as he becomes Vera. I wish my thoughts on just what is signified by her superskin and all that shit but I’m not 100% sure what my interpretation beyond the scope of plain transformation would be. I’d love to hear some thoughts on that from anyone who’s seen this.

The Skin I Live In is a cerebral film with plenty of fucked up, visually arresting shit for the less analytically inclined. There’s also that it’s ostensibly a science fiction film. I obviously recommend it.