Pedro Almodovar comfortable in his own Skin

Antonio Banderas shines as an obsessive surgeon on the verge of a nervous breakdown

Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar has often gravitated to the hyperbolic emotions of melodrama, as implied by titles such as Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Given his fascination with compulsive behaviors, Almodóvar comfortably dabbles in the horror genre with his latest film The Skin I Live In. The director ingeniously casts his Antonio Banderas against type as a soft-spoken but undeniably depraved mad scientist.

Banderas plays Dr. Robert Ledgard, a brilliant, unconventional plastic surgeon working on a fire-resistant strain of artificial skin after his wife burned to death in a traffic accident years earlier. His peers in the scientific community disapprove of his radical methods — and they don't even know that he's imprisoned a young woman named Vera (Elena Anaya) who apparently bears a striking resemblance to his late wife. Vera perpetually wears a flesh-colored body suit and submits to Robert's experiments, even though she longs to escape.

An energized Banderas channels his smoldering charisma to obsessive monomania, with motivations that only gradually emerge. Robert's home décor mirrors his internal preoccupations. Classical nude paintings of Venus flank the corridors and an oversized video feed of Vera's room takes up his bedroom wall, while in his home lab he hunches over test tubes and petri dishes like any self-respecting researcher who tampers in God's domain.

Given Almodóvar's fondness for hyper-vivid colors and flamboyant art design, The Skin I Live In can matter-of-factly show a brawny guy in a gold tiger suit walk up to Robert's gate without the audience batting an eye. The film's twists are too good to spoil, but you can rest assured that no human centipeding goes on. In fact, The Skin I Live In touches on more of Almodóvar's recurring themes about personal identity than one might expect from the premise. Perhaps Almodóvar identifies a little with his amoral plastic surgeon: As a writer and director, Almodóvar spends less time changing people's appearances than building their character from the inside out.