Haunting, bizarre, but a tad distant, this Spanish drama revolves around a secretive plastic surgeon and his tortured, live-in patient. The plot is doled out very deliberately, leaving all the secrets off the table until the final act, but two key pieces of information are made clear early. The plastic surgeon is a prolific and respected practitioner who quit, following his wife’s death, to form a synthetic form of skin that makes many types of plastic surgery strengthened and more seamless. He lives in a mansion with his livelong live-in maid and his patient, a young woman, usually dressed in a flesh-colored, skintight bodysuit, who he keeps locked in her room with 24-hour surveillance that he catches himself lingering upon. As these two elements reveal themselves, and the connection between them, we start to gain a full grasp of this bizarre, makeshift family, and how, while on the surface things seem somewhat stable and consistent, the reality is terrifying and, ostensibly, just wrong.
The narrative is mostly told through interconnecting flashbacks establishing who the main players are, their relationships to one another, and why they are as traumatized as they appear to be. Writer/Director Pedro Almodovar expertly plays with your expectations and pretensions of who these people are and what they want until every character in the film has a fair amount of dirt on their hands. He creates a baroque dungeon out of the doctor’s mansion, with the grand architecture disguising the claustrophobic paranoia within. The doctor’s dead wife, while dying offscreen before the earliest events of the narrative, plays a huge part in the proceedings, and Almodovar’s recurring themes of loss, codependency, and desperation out of love play out once again. A masterstroke was recruiting his collaborator from the ’80s, Antonio Banderas, to play his lead. With our stalwart, leading man image of him clearly in mind, Almodovar proceeds to toy with our expectations and sympathies regarding his character until any certainties we had as to his true nature have been at least mildly subverted.
Banderas, speaking primarily in Spanish for the first time in forever, performs more naturally and openly than he has in eons; without the trappings of a A-B-C American narrative, he allows the rough edges of the character to reveal themselves without necessarily spelling out his inner life in an obvious manner. Elena Anaya and Marisa Paredes, as the doctor’s patient and maid, respectively, do terrific, immersive work that rounds out the mini-family that is the focus of the film; Almodovar’s films, at heart, often take the woman’s perspective, and this film is arguably no exception, putting you in the shoes of Anaya’s entrapped young woman at every given opportunity. The backstory of her character is heartbreaking, tragic, but more than a little morally complicated; let’s just say all of these characters are guilty of something, be it immorality, dishonesty, or simple egotistical self-smothering. However, by the end point, the twists and turns have left us without a single, viable protagonist, which would be fine, had the film not contained a sappy epilogue that gives one of the characters too much sympathy and pathos considering their actions earlier in the film. This keeps the film from sticking its landing as a cold, clinical examination of this group of people, and forces schmaltz where a bit of melancholy would have served ideally; while it is not nearly enough to devalue the rest of the film, it does enough to keep it from being the near-perfect work that many critics have proclaimed it to be.
Recommended to fans of more wild, sensational domestic dramas, or of Almodovar or Banderas. I’d take Talk to Her’s wild plotting or Volver’s crippling emotion over this film, but as another example of Almodovar’s talent, and as a reason to take Banderas more seriously as an actor, the film is thoroughly successful.