It takes time to get a handle on the story (and even then, your grip may not be secure), though it’s instantly clear that something is jumping beneath the surface here, threatening to burst forth. Vera’s plight and the temporal shifts help create an air of unease and barely controlled chaos, an unsettling vibe that becomes spooky when Ledgard puts on a white lab coat and begins doing strange things with blood. Almodovar doesn’t paint the screen red, at least not right away. Instead he daubs it on, the crimson easing in by way of the curtains Ledgard lectures in front of and in the droplets he perfectly places on glass plates. Later the blood will splash across a white bed in a frenzy of violence, an abstract expressionist splatter.
There are times in The Skin I Live In when it feels as if the whole thing will fly into pieces, as complication is piled onto complication, and new characters and intrigues are introduced amid horror, melodrama and slapstick. “You’re insane!” a colleague tells Ledgard, who doesn’t look terribly surprised by the news. Later, a rapist, Zeca (Roberto Alamo), in a tiger suit rings the doorbell, and one fateful night Ledgard’s daughter, Norma (Blanca Suarez), meets a young man, Vicente (Jan Cornet). Despite all these moving, spinning parts, Almodovar’s control remains virtuosic and the film hangs together completely, secured by Vera and Ledgard and a relationship that’s a Pandora’s box from which identity, gender, sex and desire spring.
Banderas and Anaya are excellent, though neither has been directed to seduce like some of the director’s past memorable characters. (A spikily human, funny Marisa Paredes, as Ledgard’s fanatically loyal housekeeper, Marilia, supplies plenty of warmth.) For good story reasons, Vera is largely opaque, while Ledgard remains at arm’s length: She is a question that he’s asked but at first can’t answer.
There’s a vital toughness, in particular, to Banderas, as this likable if often misused actor goes dark without compromising his character with softness or light. It’s a gutsy turn, and while your eyes are often, reasonably, on Anaya, it’s a pleasure to experience a performance from Banderas that peels away his persona and burrows under the skin.