Let's take a moment to remember Ken Russell, the English director who died Nov. 27 at age 84. When I was a kid in the early 1980s, I came of age as a film fan with cable viewings of Russell films like Tommy and Altered States. What I learned from them is that crazed imagery, stupefying violence and intense psychosexual freakouts add up to memorable movies.
Production notes for director and co-writer Pedro Almodóvar's The Skin I Live In cite Buñuel, Hitchcock and Murnau as points of comparison. Fair enough. I can't help but think of Russell, though, not least because of sights I won't soon forget. A woman has frantic sex with a man in a tiger costume. Antonio Banderas stares at a wall-sized video display, and the colossal face of the gorgeous actress Elena Anaya stares back at him. Banderas neatly lines up a row of dildos, various sizes, and calmly explains their use.
I enjoyed watching this frenzied, loopy sex thriller. There are big surprises, and the ever-provocative Almodóvar summons dread and horror - and also some grim laughs - by mining contemporary trends: plastic surgery, face transplants, prescription drug abuse. The filmmaker also is working with one of cinema's oldest themes, the mad scientist who plays God.
Banderas is the suave Spanish surgeon Robert. A researcher, he has developed a method of growing skin that resists mosquito bites and other traumas. One colleague is worried about the ethics of Robert's techniques, but another notes that there is a lot of money to be made with them.
Robert performs his work at a Toledo mansion overseen by his steely housekeeper (Marisa Paredes). Living in the house is Vera (Anaya), who wears a skintight bodysuit as she does yoga and makes fabric sculpture. She is watched by security cameras, and a dumbwaiter brings her meals. She seems to be a prisoner.
Who is she? The answer to that question comes in due course. It is a lulu. It relates to Robert's appalling past, seen in flashbacks. His wife is horrifically injured in a car wreck. Something terrible happens to his daughter at a chic party. A young man is abducted and tortured.
I sometimes don't like Almodóvar as much as I wish I did. I thought his last film, Broken Embraces, was excessively showy with its convoluted structure, not to mention its knowing, cinema-related metatextuality. There is some of all of that in The Skin I Live In, but this is a more straightforward film, and a more effective one.