March 18 2013 12:00 AM

Pedro Almodovar dresses up a twisted tale in stunning style in 'The Skin I Live In'


Thursday, Feb. 23 — Before he was an international sex symbol, Antonio Banderas was a familiar face to fans of the films of Spanish director Pedro Almodovar. More than 20 years since their last collaboration (“Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!”), but they are reunited in “The Skin I Live In (La Piel Que Habito),” an elegantly twisted science-fiction/psychological thriller/romance that’s utterly bizarre and stunningly stylish, even by Almodovar’s standards.

The screenplay (a loose adaptation of Thierry Jonquet’s 1995 novel “Mygale” from Almodovar and his brother, Agustin) incorporates several staples of Almodovar’s work: unrequited love, infidelity, vengeance, madness, etc. Still, there’s no mistaking this for “Volver” or “All About My Mother.” Almodovar happily referenced Hitchcock and 1950s cinema in his previous film, “Broken Embraces”; the frosty, sterile atmosphere of “Skin” recalls Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange,” “The Shining” and “Eyes Wide Shut,” although the details and dialogue are pure Almodovar.

Beneath its sci-fi surface, “Skin” is really about identity and transference, a story of how appearances, even alluring ones, can conceal sordid secrets. “You’re not my son — I just gave birth to you!” an infuriated housekeeper (Marisa Paredes) tells her thieving son, Zeca (Roberto Alamo), who has shown up at her door dressed in a tiger costume and displaying scars on his face that make it look like he might have been in a tussel with a big cat. Zeca’s get-up is appropriate, since he’s hunting down Vera (Elena Anaya), an enigmatic beauty who lives an almost hermetic life in the stupendous mansion of boundary-pushing plastic surgeon Dr. Robert Ledgard (Banderas, burying his usual humor and charm beneath a steely glare).

Vera has got a few odd outfits of her own: Her days are spent wandering around in a flesh-colored body suit, while her closets are full of cut-up dresses that provide some clues about her fractured soul. Thanks to Ledgard, she’s little more than a lithe laboratory animal, doing yoga or daydreaming while the profoundly disturbed — and disturbing — Ledgard watches her on an enormous monitor. (Vera dubs herself Vera Cruz, which seems to be an in-joke for Almodovar admirers: Oscar-winner Penelope Cruz’s career was also launched by his films.)

Ledgard, still mourning his wife’s untimely death in a fiery car crash, has devoted his life to transgenic research, developing a synthetic skin that will be more durable and resilient than anything nature could provide. He has given this creation the same name as his late spouse — Gal — and, because this is a horror story, he has been using it for demented purposes. Without revealing any major surprises, let’s simply say Ledgard has very good reasons for keeping Vera captive.

Almodovar relishes putting enormously attractive people like Banderas and Anaya in plush settings and allowing us to become voyeurs as they think the unthinkable, do the impossible and cruise toward the brink of insanity. Alberto Iglesias’ tingling, sensuous score surrounds the striking imagery like misty moonlight, giving the picture one more coat of gloss. It is all profoundly creepy and demented, yet it’s presented in ravishing colors and eye-scorching style: Almodovar even offers us the sight of a suicide attempt that could be mistaken for a fashion shoot.

“I’ve got insanity in my entrails!” Manilla wails, cursing her lamentable lineage. “Skin” has insanity everywhere, but Almodovar makes it all look and sound so seductive that you may not realize until the final reel exactly how perverse it really is.

'The Skin I Live In (La Piel Que Habito)'
7 and 9:15 p.m. Friday, Feb. 24, Saturday, Feb. 25 and Sunday, Feb. 26
Wells Hall, Michigan State University
$7; $5 seniors; $3 students
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 28 and Wednesday, Feb. 29
Hannah Community Center
819 Abbot Road, East Lansing
$8; $6 seniors; $3 students