When Pedro Almodóvar is directing, you can bet there will be plenty of sexual tension and obsession but his latest, the dark and foreboding drama "The Skin I Live In," is bizarre even by his standards.
The story begins with Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), a gifted but troubled plastic surgeon. He's spent the past 12 years obsessed with creating an artificial skin that will react and breathe like human skin something he believes would have saved his wife after a fiery car crash.
In his remote country house, Ledgard develops his artificial skin, using methods the scientific community would find disturbing. He has the willing help of his housekeeper, Marilia (Marisa Parades), and the not-so-willing help of Vera (Elena Anaya) a gorgeous guinea pig whose resemblance to the doctor's late wife is no accident.
Almodóvar (who wrote with his brother Agustin, adapting a novel by Thierry Jonquet) then reveals the backstory of Ledgard's Frankenstein-like monster. It's a tale of madness, rape and revenge that is designed to make audiences gasp or even laugh (how often do you hear the word "vaginoplasty" in a serious screenplay?), as well as bask in allusions to Hitchcock's "Vertigo" and a few old-fashioned monster movies.
But Almodóvar's painstaking style, combining rich camerawork with a dour tone, turns "The Skin I Live In" into a compelling psychological duel between Banderas' Dr. Frankenstein and Anaya's scientifically perfect Galatea.
In terms of powerhouse acting, the young Anaya ("Mesrine," "Point Blank") is a fireball contrasted with the cool detachment of Banderas (making a welcome departure from his more lucrative job voicing sword-fighting cartoon characters). There's also a strong turn by Jan Cornet, in a role that cannot be discussed here without spoiling Almodóvar's delicious and creepy surprise.
"The Skin I Live In" works, though, because the actors and Almodóvar play even the strangest turns in the story with complete authenticity. It's a weird world, but they feel right at home in it.
The Skin I Live In
An obsessed plastic surgeon and his unwilling creation in a strange battle of wills, courtesy of Pedro Almodóvar.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas
When • Opens Friday, Dec. 9
Rating • R for disturbing violent content including sexual assault, strong sexuality, graphic nudity, drug use and language
Running time • 117 minutes; in Spanish with subtitles