The first time the Spanish actor Antonio Banderas worked with his compatriot Pedro Almodóvar, in the disquieting erotic drama Law of Desire (1987), the director cast Banderas as the sinewy catamite of an older gay filmmaker on the verge of psychological collapse. Two more collaborations quickly followed. But for 21 years now, they've gone wildly separate ways: one to acclaim as a great cinema artist, and the other to Hollywood.
The years have been as kind to Banderas -- who looks great, and who's on top this time -- as the critics have been to his mentor, whose work is fast becoming not even skin deep. Back in those early days, Almodóvar was about as good of a dramatist as he was a metaphorist. But soon, perhaps because he read his own reviews, he began to prefer the latter, and his characters too often became melodramatic marionettes.
In his beautifully filmed The Skin I Live In, Almodóvar has assembled one of his most contrived, superficial and tedious films. It's a twisted tale of obsession and cruelty, with men the perpetrators of both, and with women their ably suffering victims on the verge of -- well, you know.
The story begins in Toledo, Spain, in 2012 (so it's "futuristic") and revolves around a doctor (Banderas) who performs sex-change operations at a secluded private clinic for people who want (the removal of) their business kept private. Twelve years earlier, his beloved wife took up with a thug, who crashed their getaway car. The interloper walked away uninjured, but she was burned almost to death.
Almost. Long story short: The doctor began to invent a synthetic skin, tougher than the real thing, to return her body to normal, but she didn't survive, and now he needs someone -- a woman, you'd think -- onto whom he can graft his mad invention and revivify his wife. Two rapes and a kidnapping later, the plot comes to fruition.
I'm leaving stuff out to avoid revealing some twists, but honestly, they don't amount to much more than what they are. The tone of The Skin I Live In is deadly serious, and I wish I could believe that's all part of Almodóvar's joke on a world that goes so gaga over his work. Fortunately, his attractive actors perform well, speaking his dialogue, concise and intelligent as always, in his characteristic whisper -- except when they're screaming for their lives. In Spanish, with subtitles.
The Skin I Live In
Directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Starring Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya and Jan Cornet
In Spanish, with subtitles.
Starts Fri., Dec. 2. Regent Square and Destinta Bridgeville