After countless movies depicting hapless victims tortured and mutilated to the delight of their captors, it’s easy to get the wrong idea of The Skin I Live In. In this film, an unfortunate soul is left at the mercy of a maniacal doctor, who uses the living victim to perform his experiments with impunity. Yet, the film is surprisingly light and rarely sets any teeth on edge, making The Skin I Live In eminently watchable and proving once again that presentation trumps content.
Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) is a skilled plastic surgeon who resides by himself with his live-in maid Marilia (Marisa Paredes). Robert’s wife was burned alive in a car accident and his daughter was severely traumatized by her mother’s death. As such, Robert works toward developing a controversial new skin that is resistant to damage, including burns. When he’s admonished by the medical community for his controversial experiments, Robert continues his research in secret at his home – on a live human being he keeps captive.
Viewers who followed the reception of The Skin I Live in during Cannes will probably remember reading about how European audiences walked out, shocked at what they had just witnessed. If that’s true, then American audiences truly are desensitized, because The Skin I Live In is rather tame during parts audiences might expect to cringe. The victim in the film is obviously tortured over a long period, but there’s actually very little torture presented in the film. Whatever torture there is, is usually suggested rather than explicit, and the victim is rarely shown displaying the kind of human misery that fills audiences with dread. The only cringe-worthy scene in the film is an explicit sex scene that will make skin crawl if only because one of the participants is such a disgusting character.
In fact, The Skin I Live In comes off as more intriguing and mysterious than anything else. From the very beginning, the film prepares audiences for an adventure with its lighthearted soundtrack and deluges viewers with questions that beg answering. Who is the mysterious woman that Robert is holding captive? Why does she seem so well adjusted to her confines? What is that substance the caretaker pours into the woman’s drink? The answer is delightfully satisfying so don’t let anyone spoil it by giving it away.
That’s not to say, of course, that the film doesn’t have its dark moments. Seeing what happens to Robert’s wife and the resulting trauma inflicted on his daughter is definitely horrific, but nothing audiences haven’t seen from any CSI procedural show on network television. The most terrifying aspect of The Skin I Live In is how all of the characters behave. Sooner or later they all seem to accept their absurd situations. It’s like watching criminally insane people nonchalantly going about their day, committing revolting acts. At most, however, audiences feel more disquieted than horrified.
Sadly, there’s not much in the way of character development. Robert’s descent into madness is told primarily through exposition and flashback. While his reasons for keeping his captive become clear throughout the film, there’s a certain emotional threshold the film never crosses. Instead, the writing and acting seem perfunctory at best, relying on the concept to carry the film. By and large, the film succeeds with this formula and audiences will want to see this film through to its satisfying conclusion, but there was definitely room for exploration of the human condition.