Early on in filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar latest, a sour housekeeper scrubs out the crimson tide in her employer’s bed sheets after her boss, a handsomely dressed mad scientist, shoots and kills his half brother for sleeping with yet another of his wives.
Yes, it’s happened before. Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), an internationally famous plastic surgeon, patched together his current dream companion in a home science lab, modelling her after the late, not so great, certainly unfaithful Mrs. Ledgard.
Why the allegiance to a woman who done him wrong? Who knows? Doesn’t matter. He’s a mad scientist, right?
In fact, seeing the illicit lovers coiled in his bed, our GQ Dr. Frankenstein’s first impulse is to destroy his creation. But then he realizes that’s probably impossible. He’s crafted Vera Cruz (Elena Anaya) with indestructible skin obtained by transferring genetic information from a pig.
The bullet would probably trampoline-bounce back, killing Dr. Robert. Or worse yet, tear the fabric of his sleek knit sweater.
Director of the dizzying, magnificent pop confections Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and All About My Mother, Almodovar is devoted to garish excess – ransacking popular culture to tell spinning-carousel stories of hope, anxiety and betrayal.
Role confusion is a persistent theme; satire/homage and overheated melodrama, the Spanish director’s favourite way of doing business. ( All About My Mother is dedicated to actresses Bette Davis and Romy Schneider.)
So we have a character here named after an overwrought 1954 Robert Aldrich western: Vera Cruz. Dr. Robert is from a Beatles song about drugs, which are consumed throughout The Skin I Live In. Our best pop-culture clue to the relationship between Dr. Robert and his creation is a pan across a coffee-table art book by Louise Bourgeois, a French-American sculptress who spent much of her career contemplating the treachery of an overbearing father.
That’s all interesting. And one reason why critics love Almodovar is that his films are fun to discuss, what with all the dark, provocative themes and motifs on parade. Nevertheless, it must be said that not all of his throbbing melodramas are a pleasure to actually sit through.
Though beautiful to look at and graced with moments of ticklish camp, The Skin I Live In is also sluggish, arbitrarily conceived and, especially in its sagging middle, unaccountably dull.
Even a Warner Bros. producer in the 1940s, the heyday of Hollywood flashbacks, would never have allowed so much rear-view window-gazing. Going back, separately and often, to Dr. Robert’s wife and daughter being destroyed by monsters, leaves us with a film that feels stuck in neutral.
And too much of the story resides in stars Antonio Banderas and Elena Anaya’s pretty heads. We watch Dr. Robert prowl about his fabulous mansion in Toledo, Spain, opium pipe in hand. Vera Cruz is locked inside her room, practising yoga and reading, settling into her new skin.
He paces. She settles. They look beautiful. The glass house is fantastic. But not enough happens on screen. And it’s not like Dr. Robert is passing us the pipe.
Banderas began his career with Almodovar in 1982 and appeared later in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!
An exciting stallion in those movies, he’s merely a cantering clothes horse in The Skin I Live In.
Hard to believe that any filmmaker, let alone Pedro Almodovar, could be so dull documenting the story of a mad scientist who makes silk women out of sows’ ears.
Special to The Globe and Mail
The Skin I Live In
- Directed and written by Pedro Almodovar
- Starring Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes and Jan Cornet
- Classification: 18A