The film deflates in its final third, with crude matter-of-fact set pieces, dumb explanatory psychology, and bursts of intentional camp overwhelming and canceling out the unmoored creepiness.
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It's the only Almodóvar movie in which feeling, emotional or sexual, doesn't suffuse the imagery and hold the ramshackle melodrama together.
This is a beautiful vision, but in telling too many flowery secrets, it's also one that unnecessarily keeps its queerness in the closet.
You never feel the burn in The Skin I Live In, certainly not the way you do in an immortal shocker like "Eyes Without a Face." It's almost as if Almodóvar wanted to reach out into a gory genre, but couldn't do so without wearing prissy gloves.
Much as he did with Ruth Rendell's "Live Flesh," Almodovar has taken an ice-cold psychological thriller, penned by a novelist of far less humanistic temperament, and performed some stylistic surgery of his own, adding broad comic relief, overripe melodrama, outrageous asides and zesty girl-power uplift.
Like many lab experiments, this melodramatic hybrid makes for an unstable fusion. Only someone as talented as Almodóvar could have mixed such elements without blowing up an entire movie.
Had Almodóvar embraced the genre more, and changed his style to suit a story in which human beings get hacked up and transformed, he might've naturally found his way into a more potent, satisfying narrative, rather than one that dawdles and dead-ends.
Even when the film's frigid elegance, perfectly captured by cinematographer José Luis Alcaine, becomes off-puttingly clinical, Almodóvar's passion burns through. The skin he lives in is alive to challenge no matter what warped form it takes.
Surreal but disappointingly drab, it's still not the best Almodovar in years. Despite the usual Almodovar plot twists, kinky sex and themes of sexual identity reversal, gender bending and mad desire, the cult auteur has gone off the tracks and lost his compass.
There's no reason Banderas, after two Hollywood decades, couldn't do Robert justice; yet for a man whose mourning has turned to madness, he is strangely remote, lifeless, displaying neither rage nor poignancy. If Anaya is the heart at the center of the film, Banderas is the hole.