Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodóvar, 2011)

[Warning—contains spoilers]

I can think of no useful way to break down Pedro Almodóvar's stunningly transgressive The Skin I Live In without using spoilers. Like Vertigo, The Skin I Live In features a twist that changes the entirety of the film's meaning, not simply on a cheap narrative level but the thematic subtext itself. Also like Vertigo, Almodóvar's film deliberately divulges its secret with an entire act to go, necessitating a discussion of that upheaval to truly unpack the film's offerings.

The Skin I Live In is a horror film in which everyone, on some level, is a monster. Some behave monstrously, while others see themselves as creatures. The only real distinction between the monsters is gender, which becomes the crux of the entire story. Almodóvar's film is remarkable for many reasons—the outlandish plot; its enticing blend of florid, rustic and aseptic color palettes; the ever-thickening atmosphere—but none more so than its ingenious, audacious, incisive commentary of gender identity.

The director wastes no time shaking up the audience. He introduces us to Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), a skilled surgeon working on "transgenesis," experimenting on human DNA to improve the species. In his house he keeps a woman, Vera (Elena Anaya), whom he locks in an upstairs room and denies her any sharp objects. Clad in a flesh-toned body stocking, Vera looks like an animated medical textbook drawing, anatomically correct but blank. Her presence disturbs the tranquility of Ledgard's villa, an offsetting feeling only exacerbated by the surgery clinic the doctor built on the grounds that resembles the secret lab of a mad scientist (which it is). These touches disrupt the film before it has truly begun, and things only get worse from here.

We learn that Ledgard, inspired by the suicide of his wife after a car accident left her horribly scarred, is trying to create a form of human skin resistant to burns. He tests this new flesh on Vera, and Almodóvar stresses her guinea-pig state with a beautiful, dreamy, but horrific fade from a headless medical dummy with lines marked for patches of skin to Vera lying in the same chair with the same lines marked on her. Almodóvar, along with cinematographer José Louis Alcaine, never oversells the sadism of these scenes, instead creating a lush but eerie feeling that fits with the melodramatic flourishes of revenge that slowly filter into the film, matching two dissimilar patterns along the same beat.

That oneiric approach informs even the twist, revealed through a flashback clearly rooted in Vera's perspective. While she sleeps, we see in her dreams not the woman but a young man, Vicente, a cocksure, self-consciously masculine boy who preens like a '50s greaser. Perhaps compensating for working as a seamster in his mother's shop, he hits on the lesbian clerk and later rides out to a wedding clearly looking to pick up a girl. He succeeds, chatting up Ledgard's daughter and taking her out to the garden to get some action. But his aggressive come-ons go too far, and the already shaken Norma goes completely insane and eventually kills herself. Ledgard, now wholly insane, kidnaps the boy and, as we see through a series of surgeries, turns him into Vera.

Does the reveal truly count as a twist, though? In a narrative sense, absolutely; it reconfigures the character dynamics and plunges the film into even darker territory. But it's hardly a twist the way we think of it, with a sudden reveal calculated to send the audience reeling. Anyone paying attention will put together the truth a few minutes into the extended flashback, but that in no way spoils the mood. The truth underneath The Skin I Live In is shocking, but Almodóvar does not simply drop it on the audience, instead elongating the jolt into the same sustained, sinking feeling that permeates the whole film. Almodóvar, having refined his flourishes over the years, is one of the few people who can cross as many boundaries as he does while still displaying a clear amount of restraint.

Furthermore, by not staging this as a quick reveal, Almodóvar gives the audience time to rethink the entire film to that point and what follows, which allows for a deep consideration of gender politics. We've already seen how gender affects the type of monstrosity shown in this film: Ledgard cages Vera, watches her on surveillance monitors, and has his way with her when he pleases. Contrast that active villainy to the wife, whom we see post-accident in flashback. Scarred beyond all recognition, she recoils when she finally sees her reflection and cannot bear to live. Where Ledgard hides his monstrosity beneath a handsome and soft-spoken veneer, the wife sees herself as a hideous beast.

Vicente/Vera bridges the split and clarifies the commentary. Vicente, though not evil, is brash, arrogant, defiant and sexually aggressive. He feels remorse for going too far with Norma, but he also thinks he can just move on with his life. Vera, however, is submissive, not only to Ledgard but Zeca, the half-brother who ran off with Ledgard's wife. Zeca returns and, mistaking Vera for the wife, proceeds to break into her room and rape her. After a time, Vera even defends Ledgard when suspicions begin to mount. His real face now obscured through surgery, Vicente internalizes his new feminine state and acquiesces to that gender role. It's worth noting that most of what aggression Vera still exhibits is self-directed in the same way that the wife and Norma take out their agonies on themselves where Zeca and Ledgard brutalize others.

Through Vicente/Vera, Almodóvar makes plain that gender is merely a social construct. The degree to which Vicente accepts the submissive role of the female is stunning, and it starts from the moment Ledgard gives him a vaginoplasty. Marilla, Ledgard's servant, functions as the steely matron, complicit in Ledgard's atrocities. But when she comes to the villa in flashback to look after Vera, we see her elect to wear a servant's uniform, willingly stepping back into her role as caregiver, and she even sacrifices her son in the present to maintain order for the child who grew up to be her master. As men, Ledgard, Zeca and Vicente are bestial, indulging their appetites without a care in the world. But it is the women who are made into creatures, be it Vera's lab rat, Marilla's beast of burden or the wife's hideous alien. To further stress the role gender plays in the characters' behavior, Almodóvar sparks the violence of the falling action from a glimpse Vera gets of her old self in the paper, triggering a last vestige of masculine self-determination that breaks the spell of submission.

This elevates The Skin I Live In from a first-rate genre mash-up to one of the most daring films in recent years. Almodóvar doesn't chuck in transgender forms for the sake of shock but to examine the ways that the binary opposition functions and enslaves us. This explains the stylistic intermingling feminine melodrama and masculine horror-thriller, and why neither style offers a respite. In this film, color—the passionately red blood, the offensively bright yellow of Zeca's Carnival costume/disguise—signals trouble as much as the sterility of Ledgard's lab or the ascetic conditions of Vera's sparsely decorated room.

Faces play a key role in The Skin I Live In, with Almodóvar routinely placing a male face in front of a surveillance monitor of Vera. Sometimes the man looks down upon a tiny screen, other times Vera's face looms over the watcher on a giant TV. In both cases, some force pulls each face toward the other, enticing the male, bracing the female for what she knows is coming. Almodóvar's films routinely delve into feminine oppression, and not always by evil men (Vicente has that same perverted innocence to him as Benigno from Talk to Her), but The Skin I Live In explicitly deals with the gender split and its primal, horrifying impulses better not only than any of his own movies but any film that comes to mind. Brilliantly paced and thematized, The Skin I Live In is the probably the most unorthodox, most entertaining distillation of feminist theory ever made by a man.

5 comments:

  1. I look forward to reading your take ... when I actually get to see the film. Haha.

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  2. Lots of stuff here I haven't thought about. At first, I was a bit skeptical about yr claim that Vicente's transformation into Vera is designed to demonstrate that "gender is merely a social construct", because where is the society that socializes Vera into thinking like a woman? But if you push that a little, you could well argue that the Ledgard family home can be read as a microcosm of patriarchal society, which takes dumb kids and molds and monitors them into willing sexual / domestic servants.

    In which case, this may well be Almodovar's most progressive film yet. His politics haven't always been faultless, Imo. I have serious objections to Talk To Her and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (his last film with Banderas, which I take The Skin I Live In to be a form of atonement for). I think he is often guilty of coding positive characteristics as female and negative ones as male, which his flirtation with transvestitism doesn't always efface. It's even present in yr review: Ledgard, Zeca and Vicente are bestial vs. Vera's / Norma's / the wife's self-directed aggression. A lot of his films are about the creation of family, an exclusively-female domain -- and this one is no different. He has talked about how he was raised by women and how he never saw his father as a kid, and I suspect these kinds of biases are reflected in his work.

    So personally I wouldn't trust Almodovar to give me lessons in feminist theory. That said, this is deffo one of his most enlightened films. Well paced and cohesive as well, which is sometimes a problem with his films...

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  3. I really like what you wrote down here. But do you really think the part where Vera at the end delve into violence as a 'triggering a last vestige of masculine self-determination that breaks the spell of submission'? If that is so, then this is not really a feminist film...or is it that Almodovar is trying to criticize the female sex by aligning the allegory of female equals submission and male equals control and dominance?

    But as you know, Vincente returns home. where there are women not men...

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  4. He's criticizing the social norms that bind us even though he demonstrates how arbitray those bindings are. Seeing a woman in the mirror makes Vincente act more feminine, but when he sees his old self in a photo, the self-recognition triggers more "traditionally" masculine behavior. Almodovar is showing how the image defines the behavior, not the other way around. In other words, we are not innately masculine or feminine but have that behavior dictated to us by our appearance. It shows that gender is a social construct, not a biological one.

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  5. Great thread. Thanks for opening it. Joining very late because I only just watched the film.

    I wonder no one is touching on what is sexy about the gender roles. If this is at all feminist, then how is it that vincente's eventual submission to the transformation is in part sexy, even the way it masks an inevitable desire for revenge or escape.

    It seemed to me to be a lot about male (ledgard's) revenge/s this film, perhaps more than gender exploration even. Although genders are formed in part by revenge one might argue.

    Men take women brutally because they are disempowered by women’s beauty, the creative power of their fertility, the bottomless pit of their desires for love. Women take revenge on men taking them, by using their sexual power to keep men threatened, and in chains, humiliated or use it to enact what Greer dubbed a pyrrhic victory at the end of a relationship, in this case with a gun aimed at the man's heart.


    All is grieving and forgiveness. Which Ledgard patently fails to endure. Or else All is revenge.


    Amodovar also dramatised the equally - mirror image - disturbing qualities of submission and dominance. Close ups of Vincente in the dungeon and later Vera beneath Veca, were perhaps more disturbing than Ledgard's or Veca's brutality. The ways they submitted...
    I dont really think Almodovar was interested in moral implications (feminist or otherwise)
    He has simply portrayed the brutal and submissive roles we play in sexual relationships, both within family and beyond, within genders and beyond.
    But as one commentator pointed out astutely, male negative / female positive biases probably dominate his films and this one, because of Ledgard's alpha male vengefulness, as well. But this too is simplistic. The mother wasn't a particularly good mother! And images of the darker obsessive side of women's concern with their looks - women are after all the drivers of plastic surgery market - also abound.
    Great movie. Lots of themes that want more exploring...

    - bocky

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