Antonio Banderas has had a long-running career that just about nobody talks about. He's this weird entity: a famous, incredibly handsome man who's famous but not really for any specific role. He's just, y'know, handsome. He got his launch in a series of Pedro Almodovar films in the '80s like "Law of Desire" and "Matador," but after 1990's "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!" the Spanish actor mostly focused on Hollywood productions where he usually played the hunky hero. So it's a relief to have him back with Almodovar for "The Skin I Live In," which did incredible art-house business this last weekend. It's a great movie, and he's great in it -- mostly because of just how much he turns his own handsomeness inside out.
If you haven't had a chance to see it yet, "The Skin I Live In" stars Banderas as a doctor developing a synthetic skin that can't burn. (His wife died in a fiery car accident, hence inspiring his obsession.) That ought to make Banderas incredibly sympathetic, but not since Almodovar's equally dark "Bad Education" has the filmmaker given us a man so sneakily, creepily horrible. You see, the good doctor is keeping a woman (Vera, played by Elena Anaya) hostage in his beautiful mansion so that he can use her as his guinea pig. There's more to it than that -- much, much more -- but that at least explains the central conflict in a movie that, like many of Almodovar's films, mixes intrigue, camp, obsession, madness and poignancy in such unexpected ways that you feel yourself bouncing along with "Skin's" vibrant, unpredictable moods.
But at the center of everything is Banderas, whose performance is so quiet and measured that, after the swashbuckling heroics of the "Zorro" films, you may worry that the man's suffered a stroke. He's playing a man consumed by grief, but even more tragically he's infused with a sense of righteousness that long ago curdled his good intentions into poisoned acts of cruelty. "The Skin I Live In" has been compared to "Vertigo," and it makes sense that Banderas is playing the Jimmy Stewart role: Both actors are known for their considerable likability, which makes it so effective when they reveal darker impulses underneath that persona. Just recently turned 51, Banderas is an aging beauty now, and that age is all over his face in "Skin": It gives gravitas and pain to a character who lost his soul a long time but isn't even aware of it. Neither is the audience, which only slowly begins to understand the extent of his despicable, twisted behavior.
Banderas is now known to most audiences as Zorro and Puss in Boots, but with "The Skin I Live In" he gets to throw off all that and dive deep into a darker, meaner man who could never be the star of a Hollywood movie. It was just about impossible to believe that Banderas was interested in such a role at this stage of his career. Maybe that's what makes it so shocking and satisfying.