Cineworld Glasgow, 08.09.11
It’s impossible not to discuss the central themes of Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film, The Skin I live In, without giving away a central plot point, so if you are considering seeing this film in the future, it suffices to say that it is another impressive work from the Spanish director that explores his recurring themes of sex and sexual identity, absent or misguided fathers, sisterhood and motherhood. Thoroughly recommended viewing for Almodóvar fans and newcomers alike, but only read on if you have already seen or never intend to see this film.
The plot for Almodóvar’s latest manages to be both fresh and touch new ground, while at the same time referencing his previous work and centering on familiar themes. The film opens with Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), a respected plastic surgeon, who has secretly imprisoned a young woman, Vera (Elena Anaya), and has given her a complete skin transplant with a new skin he has artificially produced. Only he and his housekeeper, Marilia (Marisa Parades), know of his secret captive. While Robert is out one day, his brother, Zeco (Roberto Alamo) arrives, ties up Marilia, and rapes Vera. Robert arrives home and kills Zeco. Robert and Vera then sleep together. In flashbacks, we learn that Robert lost his wife, when she committed suicide after she was badly burned in a car accident caused by Zeco. Despite Robert’s best efforts to reconstruct his wife’s appearance, she sees her reflection and throws herself from a window. The suicide is witnessed by Robert’s daughter, Norma (Blanca Suárez). Later, Robert attends a wedding, at which Norma is subjected to an attempted rape by Vicente (Jan Cornet). Mentally scarred, Norma is kept in a psychiatric hospital, where she eventually kills herself by throwing herself from a window. Seeking revenge, Robert kidnaps Vincente, and we learn that he reconstructs him as Vera. Back in the present, Vera manages to escape from Robert, killing him in the process, and returns home to his mother and the fashion shop she once worked in.
The main topic of the film, as with most Almodóvar films, is the question of sexual identity. The character of Vera/Vincente is the ultimate realisation of Almodóvar’s questioning of fixed sexual identities. His canon of films is littered with transvestites, transsexuals, lesbians and gay men, and the culmination of this theme is reached in The Skin I Live In. By taking the character of Vincente and adding an element of sci-fi with the ability to create perfect, soft skin, a man can completely transform into a woman, whom no one would mistake for a transsexual. It obviously negates some of the issues that concern transsexuals in the real world, the bone structure, the harsh skin, body hair, and Adam’s apple, or the masculine voice that are often the tell-tale signs that give away a transsexual identity are swept aside, which obviously also negates the mental and physical concerns that these cause. If all transsexuals ended up by looking like Elena Anaya, then I’m sure the transition would not be as traumatic and ridiculed as it can be in the real world.
However, these issues can also be overlooked by the fact that Vincente is given a vaginoplasty and then re-created as Vera against his will. As in previous films, The Skin I Live In continues Almodovar’s attempts to create a world almost exclusively inhabited by women. The physical transformation Vincente undergoes seems like Almodóvar’s ultimate dream, that envisages a world that does away with the male figure completely. Once again the father figure in The Skin I Live In is almost completely absent. Vincente lives and works with his mother and Christine, a lesbian shop assistant. Robert, by contrast, as a male at the centre of an Almodóvar film, is an unusually developed male role, but ultimately becomes a figure of evil, a mad scientist whose values have become squewed by revenge. His brother, Zeco, appears only as a criminal on the run after committing a robbery, who rapes Vera. dressed as a tiger, he rapes Vera as though ravishing a meal. Vincente himself is presented as a lazy young man, content to be out drinking with friends and looking to sleep with as many young women as he can find, possibly with the aid of drugs. However, his alleged rape of Robert’s daughter is less than straight forward. When Norma realises what Vincente is attempting to do to her, she panics, and cries out. Vincente relents and stops the sexual act, but a panicked Norma runs away and tells her father she has been raped. In both cases sex is represented as an act of violence, of rape. The other sexual encounter central to the film, Robert sleeping with his creation, Vera, is presented as a loving coupling, but of course it is not simply this straightforward. Robert has held Vera captive for years, against her will. He has constructed her in the image of his dead wife. they only consummate their relationship after Zeco’s rape of Vera, and for a brief time are able to live together, as though in a normal relationship. Marilia has already warned Robert over the trouble that will come from Vera, and advised him to kill her rather than fall in love with her. Eventually, Vincente is reminded of how she came to be with Robert, and came to be the woman she is, and escapes, killing Robert in the process.
The film closes with Vera returning to the shop where his mother and Cristina still work, and they are greeted by her announcing who she is. In the end we are left with the image of the all female family, mother, daughter and lesbian friend. The male from this trio has been replaced, literally, and transformed into a woman. It ends with a familiar Almodóvar trait of the family that exists without the male, familiar from Volver (2006), but here more distinct by implying that the male, son, father, can be physically replaced completely in the family unit. The central males in the film Robert and Zeco are dead, or have become a woman, Vera.
The Skin I Live In is yet another good film from the always controversial, and always worth watching, Almodóvar. Around the central issue of sexual identity are his usual touches of humour, and added to that here are elements of sci-fi and the thriller, all with his distinctive Spanish flavour.
Film Rating: 4 out of 5.