The Skin I Live In
Dir: Pedro Almodóvar
Sony Pictures Classics
In The Skin I Live In, Pedro Almodóvar unleashes his most audacious, unforgettable statement on one of his career’s central themes: female subjectivity. We now properly understand the director’s penchant for narrative twists and turns: in the way that Almodóvar carves up his stories like Skin’s male protagonist, plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), slices synthetic skin for experimental transplant onto his love object Vera (Elena Anaya), he acknowledges the constructed nature of consciousness and of ourselves as subjects. Almodóvar folds this powerful and provocative theme into his exploration of gender and transsexuality, which in a recent interview he referred to affirmatively as “a challenge to God.” Almodóvar may not be the first filmmaker to engage transsexuality in the forefront of his work, but he could be the first to find proper cinematic form for it: in Skin, as in 1999’s masterpiece All About My Mother, the narrative itself ruptures and causes our identification with a protagonist to shift, from an initial male character (Ledgard in Skin, Manuela’s son in Mother) to a female one (Vera, Manuela). In doing so, Almodóvar subverts cinematic conventions to position the viewer within the subjectivity of a woman, surpassing feminist calls to merely critique female objectification. The result, thrilling and intimate, is a cinema of solidarity.
Skin’s protagonists are Ledgard and Vera, doctor and captive patient, who is kept locked in a room in Ledgard’s house. Ledgard uses Vera for experiments to create synthetic skin that can repel mosquitoes (preventing the spread of malaria) and withstand burns. Ledgard’s inspiration is his departed wife, who jumped out a window to her death after witnessing her disfigured appearance from suffering massive burns in a car accident. We learn that Vera has been made to resemble the departed wife, and we are also told of Ledgard’s psychologically troubled daughter Norma (Blanca Suárez), who commits suicide in the same way her mother did. If this is a horror film in the mode outlined by critic Robin Wood, featuring a monstrous return of what has been psychologically repressed, then the repressed focus of Skin is female subjectivity. Ledgard represses his wife’s infidelity – she was with her lover, Ledgard’s half-brother Zeca (Roberto Álamo), during the car accident – as well as his daughter’s own trauma as a result of her mother’s death and, later on, rape. But Ledgard’s ultimate act of repression is the “creation” of Vera. In the film’s most audacious twist – the narrative literally repressing this key fact until a rupturing flashback – we learn that Vera is the result of a forcible sex change performed on Vicente (Jan Cornet), the man who raped Ledgard’s daughter. This metaphorical rape is all the more frightening: by replacing Vicente’s genitalia with a vagina, Ledgard commits an even more twisted violation, literally making his victim penetrable (a point disturbingly made when Ledgard explains to Vicente/Vera the phallus-shaped instruments she must insert into her vagina in order to prevent post-op complications).
Almodóvar brilliantly layers onto this moment of actual sex change a narrative shift that puts us into the subjectivity of Vera as we see her attempts to survive these horrific new circumstances. The swiftness with which Vera is feminized suggests the extent to which femaleness is a social construct superseding biology: Vera becomes a woman not because she has a vagina (and later, breasts) but because she now occupies a female position in society, including roles often historically occupied by women: victim (of rape and multiple forms of abuse), sex object and subordinate to male authority. She must discover and create her new identity as female subject: in other words, her consciousness becomes gendered as female. Ironically, then, in giving Vicente a sex change, attempting to create an obedient, doll-like figure to replace his dead wife, Ledgard unleashes the female subjectivity he most wished to repress. Skin is not explicitly political, but in its critique of patriarchal authority – embodied in the stock figure of the doctor so common in the melodrama genre – it performs one of the most urgent political acts of our time: giving voice to female consciousness and simultaneously bearing witness to its fundamentally indestructible nature.
The Skin I Live In’s final gesture of flamboyant audacity asks us to consider Vera not as ruined victim but the result of transformative rebirth (indifferent to choice just like natural birth). As horrific as forced sex change would be to anyone, we must recognize that some of the horror stems from our collective belief that it is more preferable to be born a man. Almodóvar seeks to critique this prejudice, offering a less cynically tentative example of, in the words of Robin Wood, Brian De Palma’s “politics of castration.” Where De Palma frequently reached a standstill subverting the very structures that privileged him – a straight male, from birth – the queer Almodóvar replaces De Palma’s neurotically burdened “politics of castration” with a liberated, humanistic de-centering of hegemonic masculinity, viewing life creatively – hence the tendency in his films to foreground dance, cinema, theater, and music. Tiny clues evince Vicente’s desultory life as a male, unthinkingly raping Norma and restlessly wishing to leave his hometown. He desires his beautiful lesbian coworker, lamenting not that she doesn’t like men but that she doesn’t like him, and his relationship with his mother is apathetic. Returning to her and the former coworker (who still works at his mother’s shop) as Vera, the emotion is overpowering. The tearful, exquisitely tender finale resurfaces Vera’s previous identity but promises a new life for a person who was aimless as a man but resolutely alive as a woman. Skin’s seemingly abrupt ending resists the kind of closure that Almodóvar’s worldview no longer needs; instead, openness is celebrated, pointing toward a future that could inspire another movie altogether. The idea of “Vicente” living inside Vera’s beautiful skin will unsettle many, but Almodóvar’s vision, remarkably defined and fully formed, is enough to make Skin one of the smartest, most inviting statements of its kind in recent years.
by Trevor Link