After I got home from seeing The Skin I Live In (2011), Pedro Almodovar's new film, I sat down at my computer and started to peruse the film's reviews. I do this sometimes when I'm trying to clarify my thoughts on something that I've just seen. Sometimes it's helpful. Sometimes its not. The reviews of The Skin I Live In fall into the latter category. Most of them get tangled up in the "twist," while others trot out words like "perverse," "kinky," and "twisted." Most of them catalog the film's many obvious touchstones (and I intend to do a little of that myself). Pedro does like his influences. Almost none of them treat with the central themes and problems of the film or what they suggest about its director. A twist will do that, I guess. As for the adjectives, well, I suspect that my own history inclines me to accept certain things as a matter of course.
I'm going to spoil the hell out of this movie. I thought I'd let you know that up front, because there's no way I can talk about what I want to talk about without spoiling it. If you're someone who hasn't seen the film and doesn't want it "spoiled," then stop reading now. You have been warned. For myself, I don't think a legitimately good movie can be spoiled, but for the sake of politeness, I'll put the rest of this below the cut and insert a handy still from the movie as a bumper. From here on out, though, I won't be coy.
The "twist" does have at least one benefit. It keeps writers on the internets from saying egregiously stupid things about transgender identities in relation to the movie. Oh, yes! This is one of those movies where the twist is "She's a dude!" I give this the side-eye, the eye-roll, and the facepalm, because the "twist," isn't much of a twist in the broad outline of the movie. I think cisgender movie writers may be conditioned to consider any kind of revelation of trans identities a twist--movies have been doing this for decades, after all--but that doesn't make what this movie does a rug-puller.
Anyway, the plot:
Renowned plastic surgeon, Dr. Robert Ledgard, has developed a new skin graft technique, in which the skin is grown from a genetically altered sample of pig skin. The new skin is more durable than human skin and resistant to burns. Ledgard's wife, it seems, was burned alive in a car accident and he is pursuing this line of research with a zeal bordering on obsession. He claims to have only experimented with his new skin on mice, but the truth is somewhat different. In his home, there is a woman being held captive. Her name is Vera. She spends her days ripping up garments for art projects, doing yoga, and watching National Geographic specials. She wears an odd, skin-colored catsuit. She is not permitted sharp objects. Ledgard's mother, Marilia, works in the house as both a servant and a jailer. She dutifully doses Vera's food with anti-depressants and provides her with everything she needs short of freedom. Vera, we assume, is Ledgard's test subject, though that impression proves to stop short of the truth. Vera's other son arrives home one day, inexplicably dressed in a tiger outfit, and rapes Vera, all the while asking her who she is and why she looks familiar. Trigger the flashbacks. In flashbacks from multiple viewpoints, the movie tells us that Ledgard had a daughter, Norma, who was suffering from a social anxiety disorder, and that during a party a decade ago, Norma was raped by a young man named Vincente, who may or may not have been aware that he was committing rape. Norma commits suicide and, after a time, Ledgard tracks Vincente down and kidnaps him. Ledgard then begins to exact his revenge, bit by bit stripping away Vincente's identity and his very gender in ever more elaborate and devilishly successful plastic surgery experiments, until what is left is the woman we met at the beginning of the movie: Vera. At some point, the movie intimates, the thirst for revenge has given way to some other obsession for Ledgard, and he begins to set Vera free in exchange for love and sex. Vera, for her part, sees her loosening bonds as an opportunity for escape and revenge of her own.
To tell you the truth, I was kind of dreading this movie. I love Almodovar, but I won't pretend that his recurring fascination with transsexuals doesn't give me fits, because it does. I knew the broad outlines of the plot of The Skin I Live In before I saw it, so I knew that this was another movie that casts transsexual identities as a construction of out-of-control quack medical science. I can't say that this movie doesn't go there, either, because it totally does. As I was watching, it was hard for me not to see John Money in Robert Ledgard and David Reimer in Vera/Vincente. Hell, Ledgard even has Money's appetite for collecting art. The film goes a step further than most with some of the squickier details of gender reasignment. While I laughed out loud at the scene where Ledgard arranges the dilators for Vera's new vagina on the top of a dresser, I noticed that some members of the audience were squirming a bit. I'm also uncomfortable--to put it mildly--with the rape and kidnapping narratives. It reminds me of a more elegant rethinking of Tiresia, a film I absolutely loathed. Still, most of these elements are plucked from Pedro's own filmography. He's a true auteur in this, because he's a filmmaker who never throws anything away. Almodovar's attitude towards transsexuals has always been disarmingly conflicted, too, and it was never more true than with this movie.
I need to back up a bit and give a little bit more context. At its core, The Skin That I Live In is a transgender slash porn narrative. It belongs to the subgenre of "forced feminization," and it hits the notes like a pro: the man punished for rape by being forced to become a woman, the reluctant acceptance of a new gender identity, the quasi-Stockholm syndrome as love story, the fetishization of transformation. The erotic content for readers of this stuff isn't in the sex, though there's certainly sex in the genre and in this movie, but in the thought of being forced to embrace a new gender ideation. I was talking to a trans friend of mine after I got home. "It's a Fictionmania story," she said, referring to an online archive of trans slash stories. She described seeing the film with two cisgender companions. She wound up having to explain to them that there is indeed an audience who would not be horrified by this film, but would rather be aroused by it. There's a profound streak of self-loathing in these stories. They're written by people who often repress their own gender identities in real life and who use these kinds of fantasies as a way to exercise (or exorcise) what they can't express otherwise. "In the literature of my people," Kate Bornstein once wrote, "we are always forced." It's always dangerous to try to psychoanalyze a filmmaker through his or her work, but I can't help it. I wonder if Pedro has some deeper gender issues than his public persona as a cis gay man.
The film also mines traditional themes of cinematic transphobia, too, though it does so obliquely. Ledgard is what you would get if you combined Hannibal Lecter with Buffalo Bill. Like Lecter, Ledgard is a cultured mad genius. Like Buffalo Bill, he's making a woman suit of skin, though unlike him, he's making it for someone else to wear. This is radical feminism's worst nightmares about transsexuals come to hideous life: patriarchal medicine is constructing a woman from a man to use as a fucktoy. And look at the symbols of femininity that patriarch enforces on his creation: dresses, make-up, an empty life confined in the home. There's a hint here of the argument that trans women tend to enforce regressive gender roles, especially in the scenes near the end of the movie when Vera appears to have embraced the paraphernalia of traditional femininity.
And yet...there's something else about The Skin I Live In's portrayal of transsexuality that undercuts the transphobic elements of the movie. I couldn't put a finger on it until the movie returned to its "present" after the long flashback in the second act. The first shot we see of Vera when we come back has her in a yoga pose framed very artfully by the camera. Vera, the film tells us, is an object of beauty, one that can be desired, one that can be sexual. Indeed, Ledgard is obsessed with her and takes her to bed toward the end of the movie. This is an inversion of the usual cis-sexist notion that trans bodies are objects of disgust and, "OMG! How could you ever have sex with THAT?" While the movie loads the deck by casting the extremely beautiful Elena Anaya as Vera, I'm guessing that that's not enough for most cis audiences. I should note, however, that the shots of Vera in yoga poses also feeds the idea that she's just another art object to Ledgard, though perhaps the prize of his collection.
I would hope that the very end of the movie detonates any residual transphobia, when Vera finally returns to her mother after being gone for six years. Anaya underplays the scene so beautifully that it hammers home the fact that whatever else she might be, she's someone's child and someone's friend. It takes Pedro a bit longer to find this essential humanity than he does in, say, All About My Mother, but he finds it none the less.
There's another layer to this, too, in so far as Almodovar has never viewed femininity as something less than masculinity, and there's not a sense in this movie that Vera is made "less than" by her enforced femininity. While this movie may set up transphobic tropes in its plot, it completely dismantles them by refusing to pair them with the requisite trans-misogyny that would give them any backbone.
A comparison between this film and Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face is almost inescapable. The plot is similar. The imagery is similar. Some of the underlying messages are similar. Both films are about the enforcement of beauty norms by some patriarchal authority. In both films, identity is derived solely from the face you wear. The Skin I Live In goes Franju's movie one better on this count, because the patriarchal figure in this movie enforces not only the beauty norms of gender, but gender itself. The movie pairs all of this with the cinema of voyeurism. Ledgard watches Vera on huge television monitors, and she gazes back at him directly. "I know you're watching me," she tells him, but he doesn't stop. Neither does the audience.
As a cinematic object, The Skin I Live In shows off all of the filmmaking savvy Pedro has developed over the years. It's tempting to suggest that this is a return of the enfant terribles who made Kika and Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down. The return of Antonio Banderas (as Ledgard) and Marisa Paredes (as Marilia) certainly calls back to those movies. But even though it has the transgressive queerness of those earlier films, its filmmaking moods are more reflective of the director's late movies. He's dialed down the garish colors into a more muted, more nuanced palette and he's found his groove when it comes to placing the camera in exactly the right spot and, in this movie at least, he's paired it all with an amazing score by Alberto Iglesias. If you want to discuss this as filmmaking in the abstract, this is as good as it gets, the work of a master at the height of his powers. I just wish that I didn't feel like I'm giving him a pass on this because of who he is and what his movies look like (rather than what they're about). I don't know if I want to give him the benefit of clergy.