Pedro Almodóvar, The Skin I Live In, 2011, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 117 minutes.

MARTIN SCORSESE once remarked that although Citizen Kane (1941) is a great film, he felt that after many viewings he had exhausted it. He could never exhaust Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947), on the other hand, because, as with a recurrent dream, no matter how many times he entered its world, the twisted, time-shifting story line—who did what to whom and when and why—eluded him immediately after the fact. The most oneiric films of Pedro Almodóvar have a similar effect.

The Skin I Live In is Almodóvar’s most formally complex, bravura film since All About My Mother (1999). It effortlessly synthesizes the mad-scientist horror flick, a contemporary resetting of a nineteenth-century grand opera narrative (motored by the desire for revenge and filled with dark family secrets), and the most perverse strain of the Hollywood “woman’s picture,” where the heroines are wrongly imprisoned in insane asylums or hospitals and treated as sadistically as lab rats. That it is a disturbing film goes without saying, but its affect is strikingly narcotic throughout, its moments of anguish tempered by the carnivalesque. A comedy not only because it finds the absurdity in obsession, it also resolves in favor of its protagonist, whose integrity and will to survive are never undermined, regardless of a forced physical makeover that is somewhat more than skin deep. The Skin I Live In is an exhilarating treatise on identity in which the self transcends the fragile, sullied flesh, and, as always in Almodóvar, the law of desire trumps sexual difference.

Reunited for the first time since Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990) with the director who made him an international star, Antonio Banderas plays Robert Ledgard, a plastic surgeon obsessed with creating a substitute for natural human skin that will be just as sensitive to touch but impervious to fire. Robert lives in a sprawling, impeccably designed country villa near Toledo with his protective housekeeper, Marilia (Marisa Paredes), and Vera (Elena Anaya), a young woman whose body is covered with a flesh-colored unitard. We first see Vera dutifully doing stretching exercises for a high-end video camera; it’s almost immediately clear that she is a prisoner in the house, and while she has some Stockholm syndrome–style attraction to Robert, he prefers to watch her image projected in real time on a giant screen.

Almodóvar sustains the mystery of who these three people are for what seems an outrageously long stretch of time, and then the revelations begin to pile up at a dizzying speed. Since much of the pleasure of The Skin I Live In derives from the precise route the narrative takes to arrive at the truth, involving flashbacks within flashbacks and the sudden intersection of seemingly unrelated plot elements and characters, it’s best to give away as little as possible. Suffice it to say that Robert has experienced not one but two tragic losses by the time he takes Vera prisoner. Robert is a cooler, more soigné Dr. Frankenstein, or, even better, a crueler, psychopathic version of Scottie Ferguson in Vertigo (1958), so intent on resurrecting the past that he destroys another’s present. Scottie’s Madeleine was a victim. Vera is something else. She gets to have the last word, and her summation of her experience and the movie we have just seen is hilariously direct and succinct. It has everything to do with why we leave the theater laughing.

Amy Taubin

The Skin I Live In plays at 6 PM and 9 PM on October 12 at Alice Tully Hall as part of the 49th New York Film Festival.