It is almost a given that detractors of the newest from Pedro Almodóvar will blurt out the film's baroque twists in their contortions to craft the glibbest dismissal possible; at the same time, a reluctance to spill those strange story points shouldn't be taken as an unequivocal endorsement. Of all the great modern European filmmakers, Almodóvar has recently felt like the one in most peril of turning his groove -- sumptuous surfaces, a tone between the operatic and the soap-operatic, each frame glossy with the delight of cinema like a lipstick smear from an ardent lover -- into a rut. With "The Skin I Live In," he's clearly jolted and wrested himself out of any potential rut; the concern is now, rather, what to make of the new territory he, and we, are in.
If the opening title -- "Toledo, 2012" -- weren't enough to fix us in the near-future, the unfolding plot soon moves the film to the more jagged edges of the near future. Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), a brilliant plastic surgeon, is working on a new form of artificial skin -- burn-resistant; insect-repellent; tougher and better than the mere membrane God or nature made us, and tested on mice. Meanwhile, at his residence and private clinic in the hills, a young woman who is most decidedly not a mouse, Vera (Elena Anaya) is both the beneficiary of Ledgard's genius and the captive of his madness.
If Cinema is the art form of our age, its obsession with mad scientists -- from Caligari to Frankenstein, from "Metropolis"s' Dr. Rotwang to "Dead Ringers"'s doctors Mantle -- may reflect our age's greatest anxiety, as cool calculating monsters that not only prove God dead, but endeavor to improve upon His handwork. The George Franju 1960 psycho-chiller "Eyes Without a Face" is a clear influence here -- but so is George Bernard Shaw's 1912 "Pygmalion" (as well as the myth that inspired Shaw), where the search for the perfect woman involves making her out of whatever raw materials one can find at hand, and how 'perfection' is in the eye of the beholder.