Almodóvar’s full body of work on display
One of the most entertaining moments of Pedro Almodóvar’s “The Skin I Live in’’ is the one in which it dawns on you that the plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard is out of his mind. Antonio Banderas plays Ledgard as too sane to be true. So his lunacy might be obvious from the casting. But Ledgard’s repeated trips into the spotless glass-metal-and-stone laboratory in the cellar of his Toledo, Spain, manse and to one of the rooms above are concerning. How long until some Catalan chef turns the lab into a three-Michelin-star restaurant? Who’s the beauty upstairs in the body stocking doing yoga and reading Alice Munro? The answer to the second question is one of the reasons you go to an Almodóvar film.
“The Skin I Live in’’ is Almodóvar reaching back to his sickest, kinkiest self, and it’s nice to see him trying to luxuriate in sleaze again. Robert still mourns his dead wife and wants to defend the honor of the traumatized daughter who watched her mother kill herself.
Banderas seems winkingly at home with the director who made him a star. They haven’t worked together in 21 years, and Almodóvar conducts his old friend in a state of full arousal. The shot-making is clever, and the cast, as usual, is willing to do anything he asks, especially Elena Anaya, who plays Ledgard’s most committed patient. Marisa Paredes is Banderas’s housekeeper. Though, this being Almodóvar, she’s also far more than that. At some point, she’s bound and gagged by an estranged son (Roberto Álamo) who barges into the house dressed in an outré tiger costume (it’s carnival, and, yes, a print of the tiger’s head growls from the crotch and the tail resembles the head of a penis).
Long before we know what’s going on with those two or anywhere else, Anaya’s face sends a smoke signal: She’s disturbingly beautiful, like an extra from “The Polar Express’’ living in the actual world. Flashbacks explain. And watching Almodóvar take his signature detours into the past is fun, since the man who helped invent cinematic TMI also has no idea what it means. The titles marking a leap back to the present get a big laugh since it takes about an hour to return.
The film, which is taken from a Thierry Jonquet novel called “Tarantula,’’ delivers, among other things, an impressive body count, and one shot of prosthetic penises arranged before a horrified young man so that they resemble the bars of a prison cell. This is a luscious, playful movie. The twists in the plot jostle and, even in its grotesquerie, the movie has a staggering beauty that I think we just take for granted with Almodóvar. It occurred to me (and to a few other people) that Almodóvar is doing David Cronenberg here. And yet I don’t know that Cronenberg could have pulled this off with the blitheness or sentiment that Almodóvar has. The movie concludes with a great, crowning irony - the sort of tender, twisted, perfectly done ending that Cronenberg might admire but would never attempt.
Of course, that’s a nagging problem with this movie. It’s not nasty enough. Perversion and psychopathology have never seemed less psycho - in this world insanity so passes for normal that you don’t feel the craziness. It’s like seeing someone gesticulating to you on the other side of a window and having no idea what he’s saying.
This is the first of his 18 movies that feels like walking through a Pedro Almodóvar museum. What if he’s too peaceful for ghastliness that’s truly ghastly? What if he’s too comfortable with himself to shock anyone else? He’s spent the last decade sublimating trash and schmaltz, so that the outré is both almost normal and fully emotional.
But long ago he traded abandon for a kind of serenity. This is a horror film with a yoga instructor’s outlook. You worry that Almodóvar’s enthusiasm for crime and melodrama have hardened into mannerism, that the skin in question is his own. Will he keep tightening it or will he shed it once again? Either way, it feels ungrateful to grouse since intensely arch Almodóvar is far preferable to none at all.