The Skin I Live In (2011)
Written & Directed by Pedro Almodovar
Most of the legendary filmmaker Pedro Almodovar’s films are overflowing with warmth & color. They may touch on sensitive subject matter, but the characters within these stories are usually ones we like and want to be around. This is not the case with The Skin I Live In, Almodovar’s first foray into science fiction/horror. Instead, he has made a cold, desaturated movie that is beautiful in a dark & disturbing way. The film reflects how one of its central characters has become desensitized, literally feeling nothing any longer. Sex in this picture is not an act of love & beauty but discomfort & suffering. There’s no farce or melodrama here. Unlike the rest of Almodovar’s filmography, this is a work that comes out of a dark, angry place.
Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) is a successful plastic surgeon who has been developing artificial skin. This substance would make a person impervious to burns, bug bites, and other abrasions. Unfortunately, in his eagerness to learn the full potential of his invention, Ledgard has illegally experimented on humans, which leads to his colleagues forbidding him to continue down this path. They do not know that Ledgard has been holding a woman, Vera, prisoner. She is the human wearing his new skin, and he has no plans of ever letting her go. His only confidante is Marila, his loyal housekeeper. Through flashbacks, we see the tragedies that have befallen the doctor, starting with his wife’s disfigurement caused by an explosion after a car wreck. He struggles to save her but fails, followed by his daughter slipping into a mental breakdown. The secret of Vera and how she came to be imprisoned in his home is the most harrowing portion of the tale, a horror story of cruelty.
The Skin I Live In is a film concerned with power dynamics. Vera is constantly under surveillance; we see her many times in the movie through the eye of a CCTV camera or a massive wall-sized monitor. The woman is always under the scrutiny of Ledgard’s watchful eye. However, just because he can see Vera whenever he pleases doesn’t necessarily mean the doctor is in control. Vera becomes aware of his gaze and will look directly into the camera at times. By the end of the picture, things lean far more toward Vera than her captor. We often attribute power to the one looking when examining these kinds of relationships; the gaze is what holds the subject suspended in the air to be analyzed. However, there is power in commanding that attention; capturing a person’s eyes is also a way to exercise your control.
In many ways, Ledgard serves as an analog for Almodovar. Around the time this film was released, Spanish film critics talked about how the director’s work was beginning to feel out of touch with ordinary life in the country. His increase in celebrity with recent international hits was attributed to his growth in fame, which brought money and fame. While a film like Pain and Glory deals with Almodovar’s internal dialogue more directly, The Skin I Live In is more interesting. The geography of the film is intentionally obscured. While characters speak in Spanish, many of the names and locations are jumbled, making to feel disconnected from Spain. Almodovar responds to criticism that he no longer knows how to tell Spanish stories by telling a story devoid of much of Spain.
While we may be quick to position Ledgard as the Almodovar analog, we might look to Vera instead. She is the subject of the gaze, the critique. The director seems to be saying that by giving him our eye, he has power. The doctor is trying to shape Vera into what he believes she should be, but he loses. Vera retains her control, although he certainly leaves his mark. She survives and is reconnected with her family, but how she will continue on is left up in the air. We aren’t sure if Vera truly loved the man who watched her or if it was all an act, and maybe she doesn’t even know the answer to that.