Pedro Almodovar's eighteenth film is a more than watchable fable, but one that finds the flamboyant director in a more solemn mode. Reuniting with his favourite 'chico', Antonio Banderas, twenty years after their last collaboration (of five), l990's "Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down", Almodovar revisits his familiar themes of sexual identity, passion, and revenge, but with a new and unfamiliar restraint. Gone are the gaudy colourways and histrionic performances; in their place are opulent but cold settings, underplaying, and overly-controlled hysteria.
The film is purportedly based on the French novel "Tarantula" by Thierry Jonquet, which I am about to read, but noting the back-cover blurb plus Almodovar's own comments on his film's source, it would appear to be a totally different tale to the one that he has written for the screen. The only common factor is that Banderas' character, Dr. Robert Ledgard, is an eminent surgeon, obsessed with finding a synthetic skin, even if this involves Frankenstein-like tampering with animal/human fusions. His initial motivation was brought about by his beloved wife's severe and life-threatening burns after a motor accident, which ultimately led to her suicide when she became aware of the full extent her disfiguration. In an upstairs locked bedroom we have the 'good doctor's' latest project -- the lovely Elena Anaya's Vera, in a full bodysuit covering up her creamy perfection. We learn that she has been there for six years since the suicide of his fragile daughter after a would-be rape, but to reveal Vera's true background would be too much of a spoiler here. It is enough to mention that what began as straightforward, if twisted, revenge by Dr. Ledgard has evolved into irresistible sexual yearning for the object of his tampering, especially after she has been raped by his criminally-sociopathic half-brother (decked out in a tiger suit for the local carnival).
Both the doctor and the 'tiger' are the illegitimate sons of housekeeper Marilia, portrayed by an Almodovar regular from earlier movies, now older and less glamorous, Marisa Paredes. Incidentally, she is not a character in the original novel. She loves both of her sons and tries to overlook the fact that both have become madmen in their separate ways. Talking about 'less glamorous', Banderas too is not the fresh-faced lust-object from the director's films of the l980s, but rather now an aging, leather-faced psychological cipher. Apparently, at the director's urging, he was instructed to play his part as expressionlessly and unemotionally as possible; unfortunately the net result of this underplaying is that his motivations become less and less understandable. His chosen life and work remain much of a mystery to us. As for Anaya who may be Almodovar's new muse after his five films with Penelope Cruz, she is the perfect choice for the captive Vera, lithe yet sensual; Cruz would have been a too lush-bodied presence for the role.
In many ways this is a cold film; while certainly an interesting one, taking its place in the canon of 'mad doctor' movies, it is difficult to get overly enthusiastic about it. Almodovar has made better and more entertaining movies and I am not too certain about the change of pace that is manifested here. However I suspect that it may grow on me -- like a second skin?