IT'S ABOUT TIME the mad scientist got retrofitted for today's world. With his provocative new film The Skin I Live In, Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar runs with the idea that Frankenstein's monster would be much more disturbing if sex were involved. This notion proves very, very correct.
Robert (Antonio Banderas) is a charming, urbane, and utterly mad scientist who's obsessed with the development of synthetic human skin. He hopes to create a substance impervious to fire and much tougher than regular skin, and he tests his creations on his own unwilling lab rat: the stunning Vera (Elena Anaya), held prisoner in Robert's home, locked in a room equipped with closed-circuit cameras that broadcast her every move to Robert's worried, worshipful eyes.
Vera is a whole lot prettier than Frankenstein's monster, but her story is no less complicated, and the mystery posed by her body is at the heart of the film. Vera's naked body is a sight that's soon as familiar to the audience as it is to Robert, but Robert doesn't own it any more than the viewer does, and neither his presumption of ownership nor ours goes unpunished. (It should be noticed that Vera's body goes through a lot, including an extremely discomfiting rape scene. If Black Swan was too much for you, maybe give this one a pass.)
It'd be a laughable understatement to describe The Skin I Live In as "not for everyone"—it's strange, disturbing, and utterly unflinching in its literal deconstruction of gender and selfhood. But Almodóvar also baits this trap seductively—every surface is elegant and crisp, every shot so artfully composed that even the most grotesque medical footage has an undeniable beauty, and it's all leavened with a lurid smear of melodrama that plays with the line between horror and camp. If you can sufficiently brace yourself against the strangeness of it all, Almodóvar's premise offers a mind-bending investigation into the nature of identity—and the ethically questionable boundaries of what science can and should do for us.