Ever since its premiere at Cannes, The Skin I Live In has attracted the customary divisive reviews that attend to Pedro Almodóvar movies and become a talking point among cinephiles here, there, and everywhere. And in all this, not once have I heard of anybody pointing out the extremely important detail that this is basically Almodóvar's riff on a goddamn Jess Franco movie - Spain's finest director and her worst meeting in one entirely unexpected and deliciously fucked-up package.

The story: in 2012 we have a brilliant surgeon, Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), who has been unsettling the plastic surgery community with his experiments in creating synthetic flesh. What would unsettle them even more is if it came out that these experiments have been conducted on Vera (Elena Anaya), a pretty young woman he keeps locked on the second story of his palatial home and sanitarium, attended to by his childhood housekeeper, Marilia (Marisa Paredes), and a pair of security cameras. This is warped and weird enough, of course, but the secret behind Robert's obsession gets even more twisted: it all stems from the horrible car fire in which his wife was hideously burned, not quite to death, when she was riding with her lover, Zeca (Roberto Álamo), Marilia's son. Robert was able to save her, but the scars were so horrible that the first time she saw her reflection, she jumped out of a window, dying mere feet from her daughter, Norma (Blanca Suárez). This sends the girl into a sort of fugue state, and when she is finally ready to emerge into society as a young woman, she is raped at a party by a thoughtless young hedonist, Vicente (Jan Cornet). This second trauma is enough to make Norma commit suicide, at which point Robert's anguish spills over into homicidal, vengeful rage. And that is all the more-or-less typical part of the movie, before its gets filtered through the patented Almodóvar Kink-O-Matic.

The classier sort of critic, in looking for The Skin I Live In's cinematic precursors (and Almodóvar is the sort of filmmaker where it always pays to assume that his films are self-aware genre pastiches and tributes to directors whose work he likes), will alight on the art-horror classic Eyes Without a Face, and not at all without reason - the protective plastic mask Vera wears at points throughout the movie is an obvious reference to that film's burn victim, and the plots overlap pretty nearly as well. But we are not classy around here, which is why I am proud to say that I was thinking of Franco's The Awful Dr. Orlof, one of the few halfway-decent movies in his career. Which is also about committing terrible experiments to find a perfect way to replace skin.

The point being, The Skin I Live In is a mad scientist movie, with a few scenes in the middle that call up to mind torture porn - to my incomplete knowledge, the first time that Almodóvar has turned his considerable visual talents and gift for creating bold stock characters to the realm of straight-up horror, and a fairly tacky branch of horror at that (Eyes Without a Face is a comforting mad scientist picture to use as a touchstone, because it is maybe the only one in a two-decade span that isn't mostly sleazy). Meaning that even the rather pointedly outré twist feels as much like a generic convention as it does like Almodóvar's characteristic breed of camp.

But even if the end result is a movie that feels surprisingly conventional, given the demented turns it takes, it's still a real pleasure getting to the end. Partially because as always, the director knows his way around a striking composition and, as always, fills his movie with startlingly original images - a woman in a tight flesh-colored bodysuit covered with seams that suggest horrible surgical scars, a wall covered with dates and random words scrawled in mascara, uncomfortably organic-looking clay sculptures. Even more because the cast give some really phenomenal performances - Banderas especially, whose return to the Almodóvar fold was years overdue, and who finds exactly the right balance between ice-cold villainy and operatic suffering.

Mostly, it's because Almodóvar's whole career has been about crafting melodramas of a the most outrageous and even grotesque sort that remember the secret goal of all melodrama is to depict intense human emotion with sincerity and honesty, and while The Skin I Live In isn't his most accomplished work in that regard, by any stretch, it is constantly impressive how infrequently the movie is "just" an effective thriller. It is also a movie about the flexibility of personal identity, the way that dwelling on traumatic experiences leads to reliving them, the irrational bonds of parents and children, and one of the most distressing variations on the Pygmalion myth I have encountered. It is not, in fairness, all of these things with equal success: in particular, the further into the story we go, the more I wish that Almodóvar had dug into Vera rather than making her the largely passive victim in Robert's mad scheme, though at the same time it would have been incredibly hard to do that in the story as it stands.

But a horror movie with this kind of artistry, as compared to mere craftsmanship, is rare enough that even though the film probably works best as a genre film, and not so much as a melodrama or a character study - which is not usually true of Almodóvar's pastiches - it's so good at that, I would never dare to call it a failure of any stripe. Minor Almodóvar, maybe - and it is assuredly that - but to be a minor work by one of the most important living filmmakers is no real sin, and compared to the kind of impersonal formula fair that gets the thriller most of the time, this kind of enthusiastically weird and self-amusedly kinked story is a precious little gem of trashy nastiness.

8/10