Based on the novel Tarantula by Thierry Jonquet, La Piel que Habito (The Skin I Live In) is the story about a renowned plastic surgeon who is obsessed with trying to create skin that would’ve saved his wife. After kidnapping a young woman for his experiment, the doctor’s obsession becomes more troubling as those close to him wonder how far he will go. Directed by Pedro Almodovar and co-written with brother/producer Augustin Almodovar, the film marks a reunion between Almodovar and Antonio Banderas after a 21-year break since their last collaboration for 1990’s !Atame! (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!). Also starring Almodovar regulars Marisa Paredes, Blanca Suarez, and Elena Anaya plus Roberto Alamo, Eduard Fernandez, and Jan Cornet. La Piel que Habito is a chilling yet mesmerizing film from Pedro Almodovar.
Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) is a renowned plastic surgeon that is nearly finished with an experiment to create skin that he hopes will save people from burns and other things. With help from his longtime maid Marilla (Marisa Parades), Ledgard has found a subject in the form of a woman named Vera Cruz (Elena Anaya) whom he had kidnapped years ago. With Ledgard getting closer to finish his skin experiment on Cruz, he remains haunted by the death of his wife Gal more than a decade ago while his daughter Norma (Blanca Suarez) had committed suicide six years earlier. While Vera tries to harm herself through the experiment, Robert has always found a way to fix the skin as his experiment is finally set to be finished.
While his colleagues like Fulgencio (Eduard Fernandez) and an institute president (Jose Luis Gomez) learn at what Robert did to finish the experiment. He goes into trouble over the things he used for the mutation as Fulgencio and the president believe that he’s violating the laws of science. While he’s away, Marilla gets an unexpected visit from his son Zeca (Robert Alamo) whom she hadn’t seen in a decade. Marilla reluctantly lets Zeca into her home as he’s hoping Robert could fix his face while he’s celebrating Carnival season. When he sees what Robert and Marilla are doing, he tries to cause trouble only for Robert to return and make things right.
When Marilla reveals a secret to Vera about Zeca and what happened to Robert’s wife. Vera begins to sympathize with Robert as he recalls the memories of his daughter’s mental illness and what drove her to kill herself. Notably as it involves a young man named Vicente (Jan Cornet) who had met her at party where an event lead to her mental breakdown. For Robert, he hopes that this experiment would give him the chance to do all the rights while Vera becomes haunted by the secrets that surrounds Robert and Marilla.
What happens when a man’s devotion to his wife after a horrific accident has him become obsessed in trying to find ways to save her? Well, for any doctor that wants to find a way to save someone they love. They would have to do things that would be unethical and immoral in their belief they can play God by saving lives. The film has a lot of similar elements to the 1960 George Franju film Eyes Without a Face which had a similar presence about a doctor who kidnaps young woman so he can repair the burned face of his daughter. What Pedro Almodovar does is take it much deeper than that for the motivations of what Robert Ledgard does. It’s also about finding some sort of peace with the loss he’s suffered in his life.
The screenplay that the Almodovar brothers create is very complex as it’s more than just about a doctor who would eventually fall for his subject. There’s a lot that goes on as it’s really about three people in the center of this story. Marilla is a longtime loyal servant who knew Robert as a child as her devotion to him is much bigger as she also knew his wife and daughter. While her feelings towards Vera aren’t very gracious due to the fact that she’s just a guinea pig of sorts. She eventually warms up to her following an incident involving her long-lost son Zeca. The script has a unique structure where the first act is about introducing the three main characters while the second act is about the completion of the experiment and Zeca’s visit.
Then comes this third act that really changes the course of the story into something much bigger as it involves the death of Norma, a young man named Vicente, and Vera in how they relate to this long experiment. The death of Norma would be the catalyst for what Robert wants to do. The script shifts into various genres such as thrillers, character studies, and melodrama as they all manage to be balanced in what Almodovar wants to do to tell the story.
Almodovar’s direction is very entrancing from the way he frames and composes the scenes to how he lets the drama play out. There’s a lot of what Almodovar does in terms of moving the camera or to just keep it still has him be engaged by things that is happening. Yet, he doesn’t sugarcoat things when it comes to nudity or violence. It’s all because there’s a woman that’s trying to harm herself to disrupt the experiments which forces the doctor to really go into deep to keep it going and see how he can improve things. By the time it reaches the third act, the film moves into elements of thriller and melodrama where it flashes back in time to see how Robert started this experiment. With its vibrant compositions that is shot looking down at a table to the way he frames multiple characters into a frame. Almodovar creates a truly harrowing yet engrossing drama that likes to play against the rules.
Cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine does a brilliant job with the colorful camera work from the eerie nighttime exteriors of the home and cities that the characters live in to the Ledgard home with lots of colorful sheets and objects to help complement its cold look. Editor Jose Salcedo does a fantastic job with the film’s editing as he maintains a stylistic flair filled with jump-cuts and dissolves to help the film move at a leisured pace while playing to the rhythms in the way Robert does his surgery.
Art director Anxton Gomez does a phenomenal job with the set pieces created such as Vera’s spacious room filled with yoga material, books, and drawings on the wall plus the posh objects and things in Ledgard’s home. Costume supervisor Paco Delgado does an excellent job with the costumes from the clothes that Robert and Marilla wear to the skin-like clothing Vera wears throughout while the tiger suit that Zeca wears is by fellow Almodovar collaborator Jean-Paul Gautier. Makeup designer Karmele Soler does a wonderful job with the make-up that is made for the film such as the mask that Vera wears during the early stages of the experiment to more drastic work in the film‘s second act.
Sound editor Pelayo Guttierrez does a superb job with the intimate sound work captured at the home to complement its hollow feel while some of the exterior locations are much broader to create a bit of suspense in the film. The film’s score by Alberto Iglesias is outstanding for its sweeping orchestral score that plays up the suspenseful and melodramatic films while utilizing low-key arrangements for strings and woodwinds for the somber moments of the film.
The cast assembled for the film is terrific as it features an array of terrific small performances that includes Jose Luis Gomez as a medical institute president, Barbara Lennie as a seamstress that Vera knew, Susi Sanchez as Vicente’s mother, Eduard Fernandez as Robert’s colleague Fulgencio, Blanca Suarez as Robert’s mentally-ill daughter Norma, Roberto Alamo as Marilla’s crazed son Zeca, and Jan Cortet as a mysterious young man named Vicente. Longtime Almodovar regular Marisa Paredes is excellent as Robert’s longtime maid Marilla who helps Robert with his work while trying to deal with her own secrets which she eventually tells Vera.
Elena Anaya is great as Vera, a young woman held captive for six years as she tries to deal with her own isolation and the experiments she has to endure while eventually understanding what Robert is trying to do. Finally, there’s Antonio Banderas in a chilling yet intoxicating performance as Robert Ledgard. Banderas brings a calm approach to his character in the way he does thing while being very sensitive in how he treats Vera as a patient despite some of his dark attributes. It’s definitely the best thing Banderas has done in quite some time while it is also a joy to see him work with Almodovar again after a 21-year layoff.
La Piel que Habito is an extraordinary film from Pedro Almodovar that features top-notch performances from Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, and Marisa Parades. The film is definitely among one of Almodovar’s intriguing but also shocking films as he brings back some of the dangerous elements of his earlier work with the more refined tone of his later films. For fans of thrillers and suspense, it’s film that might not be easy to watch as it’s more about characters and motivations while the third act would definitely get them into a total state of shock. In the end, La Piel que Habito is a marvelous yet spellbinding film from Pedro Almodovar.
Pedro Almodovar Films: Pepi, Luci, Bom - Labyrinth of Passion - Dark Habits - What Have I Done to Deserve This? - Matador - Law of Desire - Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown - (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!) - (High Heels) - Kika - The Flower of My Secret - Lie Flesh - All About My Mother - Talk to Her - Bad Education - Volver - Broken Embraces - I'm So Excited!
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