Lived-In Bodies, Lived-In Spaces: A Deeper Look at Almodóvar’s THE SKIN I LIVE IN
By Tatiana Sulovska
Almodóvar’s most recent movie THE SKIN I LIVE IN (La piel que habito) may leave his admirers surprised, but a double take is very much what this movie deserves.
Stunning visuals are likely what holds the most allure for American audiences, as the director seems to embrace much of the smooth cool designed experience that Hollywood has been offering. In fact, he has outdone many an LA marketing esthete in his crisp styling. However, it is more than appropriate here. After all, the topics of beauty and perfection permeate this film, and most of the story arc takes place in the residence of a surgeon (Robert Ledgard, played by Antonio Banderas), who is obsessed with both. It is through his eyes that we observe the action. They are Robert’s interiors of choice we are watching; these are spaces he inhabits. We are not just an audience; we become voyeurs along with him, as we look at the screen that displays another screen that Ledgard is watching. We spy on his captive, on Ledgard’s own darkest secrets, on the secrets that were kept from him.
Dominant tool is that of an extreme close-up. Elena Anaya’s gorgeous face, surgical tools, household objects, it is almost dizzying, as we come to understand the forced nature of the closeness conveyed.
Vicente is subjected to disproportionate vengeance inflicted by Ledgard. The young man helps himself to Ledgard’s daughter not understanding she is unable to consent to sex due to mental-health impairments. The issue of consent wells up later in the plot again, in the connotation of optional plastic surgery, to offer yet another line of questioning.
Gender and sexual identity and how they relate to one’s individuality have also been explored in his prior works. The transvestite character of Lola strikes an unforgettable figure in “Todo sobre mi madre“ (“All About My Mother“), forced to cope with loss and fatherhood, and his own mortality all at the same time. This topic is front and center in “The Skin…“ as Vicente undergoes a forceful sex re-assignment surgery at the hands of Robert. Jan Cornet is a revelation in the role of the young man. From a careless youth he is plunged into a nightmare, where he loses control over his circumstance so utterly, that it affects the most intimate aspects of his physical existence. Here, Almodóvar succeeds in making so many statements and forces his audience to think, feel, empathize. At last, even though it happens in the mode of negative definition, it is affirmed that what constitutes the female identity is not clothing, not hairstyle, and not even the ownership of a vagina and breasts.
Vicente literally loses his very own skin, as it is completely replaced during years of experimentation, which involves burning it to test the artificially cultured substitute for fire resistance, in order to satisfy Robert’s ambition. Robert’s motivations may seem noble, when he lectures on the science’s ability to help burn victims, but we discover he was never a nice man. The good doctor’s estate complete with an operating theatre was created for the “privacy” of his patients, as we come to realize the source of his wealth, aside from his inherited social standing. This acknowledgment towards the plot’s end is but a Watsonian nudge.
The insidious nature of the violence represented is frightening. We do not see the agony; all we get are little glimpses of methodical incisions, the scars over Vera’s body before they heal perfectly (a new name is given to Vicente once his transformation is complete). No sharp tools are allowed to land in Vera’s hands, as only carefully selected objects are transported into his room exclusively by a dumbwaiter. Indeed, the never-ending surgeries and experiments would surely induce insanity or a longing for death, and Robert understands that – after all, he is a physician. Still, he clearly lacks empathy, and ultimately, he becomes a victim of his own inability to consider anybody’s emotions and desires but his own, believing he did really succeed at recreating his dead spouse.
Almodóvar leaves us with Robert’s view, which eliminates every unpleasant memory, any speck that could tarnish the pristine space and the narrative he created. In the psychopath’s mind, there is nothing wrong with skining a person alive, as long as analgesics are administered. Once we grasp the true terror of the goings-on from the intimations, surely there is no more pleasure to be derived from Anaya’s face, or is there? What we normally designate as beautiful can be understood as grotesque and petrifying, if placed in a different context. The true terror here is that as viewers we may easily become complicit in the crime, forced to admire its outcome.
The film’s quiet dignity despite the chosen genre is almost perplexing. The pace is slow and deliberate, yet every frame is rich and laden with meaning, and expectation of what is to come next. Despite never abandoning his soap operatic sensibilities for heightened, nearly hysterical drama, the director unfolds a delicate, finely balanced piece of art.
Last but not least: the theme of homecoming, the return of the prodigal son, after all the desire to escape and explore the world, and the extremely tangible transformation he had undergone, go well beyond a metaphor. This is what we are left with – our own vulnerabilities to the world around us, and our need to belong and be an active part of it; the hope to be accepted no matter what we had done, and no matter what was done to us.