A villain as chilling as Lecter

In The Skin I Live In, the principal character, Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas, chilling), is a plastic surgeon. Hear him hold forth at a medical conference on the subject of face transplants: "We take shapeless masses and give them expression. We mold the musculature."

This could be God describing man, Pygmalion describing Galatea, Alfred Hitchcock describing actors, Frankenstein describing his monster. Ledgard, whose wife burned to death in an auto accident, is a man obsessed with casings. If he is almost indifferent to what's inside them, not so this sober and genuinely creepy film from Pedro Almodóvar.

What few of the doctors at the conference suspect is that in a stone villa on a hill overlooking Toledo, Spain, Dr. Ledgard cultivates skin cells to create the new flesh, translucent as fine porcelain but resistant to burn and mosquito bites. The principal ingredient: blood from a fresh-slaughtered pig. However nauseating that sounds, Skin is the opposite of gross-out. In that its most shocking sequences are implied and the terror takes hold inside the minds of the doctor's guinea pigs and Almodóvar's audience, it may be sad that Skin is an article of gross-in horror.

Ledgard, whose name echoes that of Lecter, may very well be the most unnerving movie psychopath since Hannibal the Cannibal. And like The Silence of the Lambs, this film, by turns macabre, melodramatic, and gothic, makes the heart race and the skin crawl.

With his inky hair slicked back, clothes impeccably tailored, and suspicious eyes darting like a bird of prey, Ledgard is a well-groomed ghoul. His quarry, locked away in a hermetically sealed chamber of his villa, is a stunner named Vera Cruz (Elena Anaya), onto whose flawless body he grafts his special skin. Ledgard's quarters are fitted with a large screen upon which he gazes at Vera via a closed-circuit camera. Clad in a flesh-colored body stocking, she is the Maja in his private gallery, his creation, his prisoner, his lab rat. When not trying to escape or attempt suicide, Vera practices yoga to keep from going as mad as her keeper.

This is what the movie is really about: The creamy fabric of Vera's unitard is a blank screen on which Ledgard - and the audience - project their desire, the sneaky, snaky Almodóvar encouraging identification with the film's villain.

Every image from cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine is both incandescent and celestially lit. If the radiance of the film is at odds with the darkness of the story, the incongruity is perversely seductive. The movie is as pristine as Vera's new skin, soiled as Ledgard's soul, and gnarled as the trunks of the bonsais that the doctor tends, plant versions of Vera.

To reveal any more would be to risk betraying the film's haunting secrets. But it must be said that Banderas delivers a performance that is commanding and unspeakably creepy, adjectives that equally apply to Almodóvar.

Skin is only skin-deep; Almodóvar's film is chilling to the bone.

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at carriedrickey@gmail.com.

The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito)

Directed by Éditions Gallimar, Thierry Jonquet, Agustín Almodóva, Pedro Almodóvar. With Roberto Álam, Marisa Paredes, Blanca Suárez, Jan Corne, Fernando Cay, Antonio Banderas, Bárbara Lenni, Elena Anaya, Susi Sánche, Eduard Fernández. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.

Running time: 2 hours, 0 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for disturbing violent content including sexual assault, strong sexuality, graphic nudity, drug use and language).