10/13/2011 05:25 pm ET | Updated Dec 13, 2011

Both Nutzoid and Thrilling: Almodovar's The Skin I Live In

In its 49th year the New York Film Festival is bursting with youthful energy, reaffirming its preeminence as a cultural cornerstone of New York's fall season. Part of the excitement, as always, is the range and breadth of the lineup, culled from the world's best films. From one day to the next you can go from a gorgeous vision of apocalypse (Lars von Trier's Melancholia), to a shivery Amerindie film about the fallout of a sinister cult on a young woman's psyche (Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene), to a stylish Israeli film with biblical undertones about the bonds between a father and son (Joseph Cedar's Footnote.) You can all but camp out at Lincoln Center, sampling the sidebar dialogs with directors or revivals of such films as The Royal Tenenbaums with director Wes Anderson on hand. Since New Yorkers have great radar for quality, theaters have been at capacity; you practically need to turn tricks outside Alice Tully to score a ticket. All this fest needs is several more screens! Responsive to demand, fest organizers in fact added a second screening of hot ticket Shame by Steve McQueen, toplined by Michael Fassbender.

Bowing in New York and L.A. October 14th (after screening this week at the fest) is The Skin I Live In by Pedro Almodovar, the reliably hell-raising Spanish auteur. Drawing on tropes from horror flicks about mad scientists -- think an Ibero Frankenstein -- the film is a macabre trip.

The official plot summary from Cannes: Ever since his wife was burned in a car crash, Dr. Robert Ledgard, an eminent plastic surgeon, has been interested in creating a new skin with which he could have saved her. After twelve years, he manages to cultivate a skin that is a real shield against every assault. In addition to years of study and experimentation, Robert needed a further three things: no scruples, an accomplice and a human guinea pig. Scruples were never a problem. The woman who looked after him from the day he was born, is his most faithful accomplice. And as for the human guinea pig ...

Yeah, and that's the big reveal: the identity of the human guinea pig. The convoluted plot eventually takes us there, tracking backwards, then forwards, then back again with that thrilling Almodovarian control and confidence in his materials. To quote my neighbor at the press screening, "Almodovar does f----d up better than anyone else on the planet." Anchoring the story as the psycho surgeon is Antonio Banderas, at 51 matinee-idol-handsome, jet hair pomaded like a Cary Grant. He has the most beautiful mouth in cinema and camera-ready angles that call up Mastroianni's. Let's hope he plays no more pussy cats.

But did I actually like the film? you ask. That's like asking if someone likes iguanas. You can't take your eyes off the stretch lizards with their scaly jowls, but they are monsters. Similarly there's something warped and nutzoid to the psychic spaces so fearlessly navigated in The Skin I Live In. Even Vera (Elena Anaya), the beautiful woman the doc creates -- in the image of his dead wife and "made to measure" for himself -- has a larval look in her flesh-toned unitard and non-burn skin too unblemished to look human. There's also unpleasant medical stuff, so if you're paranoid about what medics are up to generally, be forewarned. That said, the film takes Almodovar's signature theme of transsexual identity not only to new dimensions, but through the roof.

Following the press screening, the director and cast came on stage for an interview with Richard Pena, prorgram director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center. There were jokes about Anaya's unitard. "You need a perfect body to wear that body suit," said the director. Turning to Pena: "For you and me it would be a disaster."

For Banderas, reteaming with the Almodovar "family" for the first time in 21 years, "it was like going home. Plus a new departure. Robert is a fascinatingly seductive figure, though you recoil from the twisted ends to which he takes his talents." Pressed to expound on the laws of desire, Almodovar -- shifting from English to Spanish -- objected "I don't analyze my work." The film explores "the most awful nightmare you can imagine -- it's darker than my other films. I felt I was doing something new in my career."

Asked if there's a difference between men and women, he responded that while he couldn't explain the difference, "identity exists beyond gender identity and plastic surgery. It doesn't matter what [Vera's] appearance is. The soul can't be altered." The tragic absurdity in his films is usually leavened by humor -- but in this one "I tried to fight against my sense of humor, the film is very austere. Though in every situation in life humor can be present, even in the more awful ones." Like in the scene with the dildos, Banderas pointed out (don't ask).

That the doctor was trying to recreate the women he loved with a new skin evokes such figures as Pygmalion and Georges Franju's horror classic Eyes Without a Face. He didn't have these models consciously in mind, Almodovar said, but "he [the doctor] could stand in for any kind of creator. He could be me the director. My profession is to control everything and use actors to create characters."