Somewhat disappointingly, Pedro Almodóvar's latest cinema gem is not a demented concoction straight from his mind, but one based on a play called Tarantula by Thierry Jonquet. It is disappointing merely because it is so tailor made for Almodóvar's canon of work and would have only served to further impress audiences at how balefully inventive he is. But I guess acknowledging the auteur's genius in adapting the play must suffice on its own.
Opening with Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) giving a seminar on the importance of a person's facial structure, particularly a burn victim, it is instantly evident that this is a man in a position of power within the medical community. That power fuels his subdued arrogance, the belief that he can experiment as freely as he wishes--setting the tone for what is to come.
As far as revenge stories go, only Almòdovar possesses the courage to “go there” with regard to the level of derangement it takes to fully elucidate Ledgard’s fury over the death of his only daughter, Norma (Blanca Suárez). A calculated and precise man who has already endured the colossal tragedy of losing his wife essentially twice—once when she left him to run away with his brother (though he never finds out that Marilia, his house servant, is his mother, and thus never finds out that her son is his brother) and got in a disfiguring car accident, and a second time when she killed herself upon seeing her reflection in the mirror in the aftermath.
Incidentally, her body landed in front of Norma, still only a child at this point in time. This event, naturally, scars Norma for life, causing her constant anxiety and a general mistrust of anyone she encounters. After being released from a psychoneurological observation facility (which is just a fancy way of saying loony bin), she ventures with her father to a wedding—her first interaction with a mass amount of people in quite some time. At first, it all goes swimmingly and, as Robert watches her leave with a group of peers, in particular a guy named Vicente (Jan Cornet), he feels confident in his daughter’s recovery. That is, until he realizes she has been gone for an extended period of time.
When he finds her (sequestered deeply in the woods), he notices a motorcycle fleeing hurriedly. Reviving her from her unconsciousness, Norma automatically associates her father with Vicente, her rapist. So sets in motion Robert’s quest for vindication. He kidnaps Vicente and tortures him passive aggressively by leaving him in chained isolation and only refilling his water when Vicente is asleep, so that he has absolutely no human interaction. After Norma commits suicide as a result of the rape trauma, Robert ups his sadistic game by giving Vicente a vaginoplasty, the first step in an intricate gender reassignment process that transforms Vicente into "Vera Cruz" (also the name of a prominent member of Andy Warhol's Factory posse).
Initially hateful of her imprisoner, Vera seems to develop an acute case of Stockholm Syndrome that is solidified after Robert's brother, Zeca (Roberto Álamo), rapes her, prompting Robert to shoot him in the back while he's still on top of her. What would an Almodóvar movie be without these elaborate, telenovela-like plot points?
The perverse quotient intensifies as Robert finally gives in to the fact that he has created Vera in his dead wife's image. Vera, familiar with his past thanks to his house servant and undercover mother, appears to be fine with going along with the charade. After all, what can Vera really go back to now that she is no longer Vicente? But, of course, the final twist in the film is what reveals the heights of human determination and endurance--even when the most surreal and unpleasant circumstances are thrown in our path.