Review: 'The Skin I Live In'

(Two-and-a-half stars)

Undoubtedly, "The Skin I Live In" will get under yours. Writer-director Pedro Almodovar -- sometimes referred to as the Man of La Mania instead of the Man of La Mancha -- once again delves into the dark side of human nature with his signature blend of desire and violence, creepiness and camp. This labyrinth of passion is a psychological thriller that offers more horror than humor. Getting lost in the cinematic maze is a problem.

Beginning with the arresting opening image of a woman (Elena Anaya of "Talk to Her") in a flesh-toned body stocking holding a yoga position, the Spaniard shows a restrained, confident style. The minimalist look captured by cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine perfectly suits the tragic story of a Toledo-based plastic surgeon in the process of developing a revolutionary artificial skin.

Although his procedures raise bioethical red flags, Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) appears to be an extraordinary professional driven by the death of his burn-victim wife. He lives in a gorgeously appointed villa (courtesy of production designer Antxon Gomez), equipped with its own operating theater and staffed by the faithful Marilia (Almodovar muse Marisa Paredes of "All About My Mother"). The beautiful female in the opening scene is his patient, carefully monitored on video screens and two-way mirrors.

Then Almodovar wields his scapel on the source material, Thierry Jonquet's sinister French noir "Mygale," and twists it slowly. The good and gifted doctor, portrayed by Banderas with clinical coldness, is not what he seems -- nor is anyone else in this movie. As the Byzantine backstories unspool, the true natures of the characters surface. One flashback involves Ledgard's shy daughter (Blanca Suarez), who meets a nice young man (Jan Cornet) at a party. In another flashback, Marilia reveals the truth about her two sons.

But even then character motivations are murky, their actions visible but unexplained. Allusions to Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" and Georges Franju's "Eyes Without a Face," among other cinematic nods, evoke doubles and masks without providing the key that unlocks all the symbolic meaning lurking in the Spanish director's mind. Screens and surveillance are everywhere, too, but Almodovar doesn't make us question our roles as spectators or voyeurs as Michael Haneke does so successfully in "Funny Games."

The beauty of this film is only skin deep. The surface elements, such as the convoluted plot, can be understood. And the visuals are breathtaking. Almodovar has reworked generic formulas, stitching together a Frankenstein film of his own making that deals with issues ranging from mother-son relationships to identity and personal freedom.

But what does it all mean? The themes are as difficult to understand as the writings on Dr. Ledgard's walls.

Rated R for sexual assault, language, strong sexuality, drug use, disturbing violent content and graphic nudity. In Spanish with English subtitles. 1 hour, 57 minutes.

— Peter Canavese

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Short story writers wanted!

The 33rd Annual Palo Alto Weekly Short Story Contest is now accepting entries for Adult, Young Adult (15-17) and Teen (12-14) categories. Send us your short story (2,500 words or less) and entry form by March 29. First, Second and Third Place prizes awarded in each category.

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