There are moments when Pedro Almodóvar's new movie, The Skin I Live In (La Piel Que Habito) will make you squirm. It has sex and violence—often at the same time—and some very strange relationships, perverse even by Almodóvar standards. In terms of storyline, it's a weird mix of Pygmalion and Frankenstein, with echoes of vintage mad scientist horror movies from the '30s to the '50s. (You could even make a case for this film paying a sort of bizarre homage to my favorite grade-Z '50s horror movie, The Head That Wouldn't Die).
But this is one of those rare movies that gets better and better in retrospect, as the viewer begins to appreciate the scope and intensity of its themes. Very loosely based on the hard-boiled novel, "Tarantula," by the late French author Thierry Jonquet, it becomes, in Almodóvar's expert hands, an outrageous, yet smart and compelling meditation on gender and identity, and how much each depends on the other. Almodóvar asks: what makes us who we are inside? Is it how we look, the surface or skin on the outside? Or is there some unassailable core of identity that determines one's selfhood, no matter what?
These questions come whipped up into a typically lush and spicy Almodóvar cocktail of sex, obsession, gunplay, haunting secrets, merging personas, dubious parentage, and maternal devotion. At the center of it all is Antonio Banderas, making a welcome return to the Spanish auteur's stable of players after a 21-year hiatus.