Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film (which screened October 12 at the New York Film Festival and is distributed in the U.S. by Sony Pictures Classics) is a disturbing thriller that at times veers toward horror. In this web exclusive, Film Quarterly columnist Paul Julian Smith, Distinguished Professor in the Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Literatures and Languages Program at the Graduate Center, CUNY, discusses The Skin I Live In with Film Quarterly editor Rob White.
SPOILER WARNING: This discussion contains major spoilers throughout and is therefore best read only after having seen the film.
Rob White: Since this discussion is aimed at people who have already seen The Skin I Live In, let me start by briefly summarizing the plot, ignoring the temporal complications of the flashback structure.
At a glitzy mansion party, the teenage daughter of a surgeon, Robert Ledgard, is molested by twentysomething Vicente. The disturbed girl, already traumatized by having watched her badly disfigured mother’s suicide, takes her own life. Robert kidnaps Vicente and subjects him to a forced sex change, followed by years of cosmetic surgery and skin transplants. Vicente becomes Vera, watched over by Robert’s housekeeper (also his mother), Marilia. When her other son, a Brazilian jewel thief called Zeca, arrives unexpectedly and rapes Vera, Robert kills him. The doctor’s passion for Vera is unlocked and his prisoner plays along, building trust until eventually Vera is able to kill both captors, and then escape home to be reunited with her mother. (It is never made clear what gendered pronoun Vera might eventually prefer, but for the sake of clarity it makes sense to call Vera “she.”)
The Skin I Live In is set in a glamorous prison: huge wrought-iron gates and a videophone system bar the entrance to Robert’s opulent house. Remote-control locks seal the building while CCTV makes the interior a panopticon. In a sense this place of incarceration is also a torture chamber: Vicente is drugged and strapped down so that the world-renowned medic can perform the vaginoplasty operation. (For what must be the first time in an Almodóvar film, transsexualism has no positive valence: here it is sheer violent mutilation and the cause of torment.) And yet, in a perhaps more important sense, torture is not the point. Near the start of The Skin I Live In, we see one result of the skin transplant for Vera: she cannot feel pain when Robert applies a blowtorch. Torture entails agony but what happens to Robert’s victim is something else: desensitization, a deficit of feeling, a harrowing loss of pain to go along with all Vera’s other losses.
And this, I think, is at the heart of the film, or perhaps I should say the heart of the problem of the film. The Skin I Live In is cold, cruel, detached; its grim sex scenes—if that is the right phrase: really they are scenes of molestation if not outright rape—are scenes of disaffection, discomfort, suffering. So the loss of sensation extends to pleasure too, and I would say that the problem of the film is its “visual un-pleasure,” the fact that the enjoyable Almodóvar trademarks have gone missing. Where are the exuberant humor, the farcical coincidences? Where is melodrama? Where, in a more subdued mode, is the tender reconciliation that gives Volver and Broken Embraces their emotional force? Where, finally, is the polymorphous eroticism? (Think of Kika, for example, with its multiple infidelities and irrepressible libidos!) When Zeca in his kinky tiger-face codpiece licks the black-and-white CCTV image of Vera doing yoga, is this in fact the only persuasive representation of desire in the whole film? What kind of Almodóvar movie is this?
Paul Julian Smith: Vera (the made-to-measure character whose new name ironically means “true”) is confined to a torture chamber for much of this new kind of Almodóvar film. But Pedro himself seems here to be locked in an echo chamber, compelled to repeat fragments of past movies. And, as you say, this is repetition with a twist, a prescription strength dose of visual un-pleasure. So Almodóvar challenges his longtime audience with a shot-by-shot remake of the most uncomfortable sequence in his entire oeuvre, the lengthy comic rape in Kika. And he bases his new plot on the kidnap-confinement premise of Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down, but with the victim no longer falling for her tormenter, as Victoria Abril’s character once did for the then startlingly sexy onscreen Banderas.
Short sequences also stand out as (failed or frustrated?) attempts to invoke memories of orgiastic pleasure shared with faithful fans. When young Vicente, the new Prometheus destined for enforced sex change, is chained to a rock in his underpants, he is briefly hosed down by a frozen-faced doctor. I can’t help thinking of The Law of Desire, where Carmen Maura’s transsexual Tina, ecstatic on the hottest of Madrid summer nights, begs to be cooled off by a water jet from a street sanitation worker. The Law of Desire’s defiant erotic delight, enjoyed in the most public and open of spaces, gives way in Skin to a dark and private discomfort, claustrophobic and melancholic. And straight sex in the film is consistently reduced to rape.
This desensitization you mention (to pleasure as to pain) is bound up with the panopticon motif. In Foucault’s Discipline and Punish one (invisible) man’s look serves to keep many (all too visible) men in bondage. And it’s striking that in Skin Almodóvar, only begetter of that carceral look, strings together thoroughly Foucauldian spaces and institutions (the prison cell, the hospital ward, the lecture theater). But there’s an added layer of hypervisuality here: there are no fewer than two CCTV screens constantly monitoring victim Vera and two TV screens, her only access to the (greatly attenuated) world outside. So my question is: is there any way out of the echo chamber, any escape from the panopticon, for Vera and, more importantly, for Pedro?
Rob White: It’s a thought-provoking question! In his book, Foucault stressed the idea of “docile bodies”: the point of a surveillance system of discipline as opposed to violent punishment is to inculcate a constant feeling of being watched (even if no one is watching) as a means of creating obedience based on the belief that it’s hopeless even to try to escape. This doesn’t describe Vera at all. She waits and waits, scribbling her “wall diary,” as Almodóvar in his director’s statement calls the eyeliner-written musings that adorn the bedroom, practicing yoga, and never for one moment giving up on the idea of escape. It’s the opposite of Stockholm Syndrome, though Robert (despite Marilia’s warnings) foolishly and sentimentally thinks otherwise. Sexual desire may be largely missing from The Skin I Live In, but not determination and cunning.
“I know you look at me,” Vera says to Robert, unsettlingly, and their complex power game is defined visually by the image of Vera looking back at the surveillance camera, both when Zeca ogles her and when Robert zooms in on the ultra-high-definition plasma image of Vera in a pose that resembles the Old Master painting hanging next door. An incarcerated body, then, but not at all a docile one. Almodóvar thus gives an intriguing spin on the surveillance theme by emphasizing both the gaze’s reciprocity and the highly aestheticized quality of the images that the house’s video screens exhibit. It’s not just the huge, zoomable, obviously beautiful big-screen portrait of Vera that’s artful: the other video feed is too. The kitchen CCTV images are black-and-white when there’s no technological reason for this to be so. These images are highly stylized in another way (old-style bad-quality video has become a trope, as with DIY digital “antiquing”). And actually I think Almodóvar is on to something rich here, in this presentation of a world of image and artifice.
But, to offer a direct answer to your question: Vera escapes in the end because, in contrast with the identity play and performativity and lightness of being that often comes to the fore in Almodóvar’s films, she stays in some steely way fanatically true to herself (or himself?) and her determination to get away. And Pedro? Well that rather depends on whether you think that The Skin I Live In is a trap or a dead end as well as an echo chamber. Is this the work of a director who’s cut off and out of touch?
Paul Julian Smith: Some Spaniards do say that, secluded by celebrity, Almodóvar is out of touch. And the claustrophobia of Skin’s enclosed settings and the hermeticism of its self-reference go hand in hand with an indifference to time and place. Where once Almodóvar offered a heightened vision of Madrid that somehow intersected with the real city, now he seems, literally, all over the place. So we start with a showy shot of landlocked Toledo, although the film was mainly made in damp coastal Galicia. And one minor character inexplicably carries a copy of La Vanguardia, the Barcelona newspaper. Even the names (Ledgard, Marilia, Gal) seem to come from nowhere. And if geography is hazy, then so is chronology. There’s a transparent disconnect between the supposed present of Skin’s perverse but cossetted cast and the reality of contemporary Spain, reeling from the financial crisis and wracked by popular protests.
The film also fails to communicate the heartfelt emotions cited in the director’s statement; Skin often seems as surgically chilly as its protagonist. As you say, Almodóvar does offer in Skin a disconcerting spin on the sex-change theme that is so vital to his oeuvre. But, in keeping with the new un-pleasure principle, transgender is no liberating choice but rather a tragic imposition. One image I love in this highly aestheticized film is of hundreds of shreds of floral flocks scattered on a floor. The very picture of Vicente–Vera’s gender trouble, these torn dresses point to an unlikely final moral: the vindication of an essential sexual identity (being “true” to one’s birth sex) that trumps the playfully postmodern gender roles with which Almodóvar is conventionally credited.
But maybe this confirms what you say about Vera’s steely refusal to be docile, her defiant look back at the camera? Old-style essential identities may be a “trope” (like old-style video) but they’re a trope the character is forced to stake her life on. Is Pedro, likewise, insisting on being “true to himself,” even at the cost of alienating his audience?
Rob White: Gal is Robert’s wife, who thought she was escaping him with Zeca only to wind up in an auto crash. Robert gets her back home; maybe he even prefers her this way, at his mercy and in need of surgery because her skin has been terribly burned. Speaking to Vera after Zeca’s death, Marilia remembers: “After the accident, we lived like vampires: in total darkness, with no mirrors.” Then one day Gal accidentally catches sight of her reflected face (hairless, raw) and in horror throws herself to her death in front of her daughter. “She didn’t look human,” says the housekeeper. “She was a cinder.” And from the very brief glimpses of her we get she indeed looks like a movie alien, like something from The Man Who Fell to Earth. Something more than alienated, then: inhuman, unearthly. At its best, Skin is profoundly strange and uncanny. Think of the party scene: when Robert prowls around the nocturnal garden in which adolescent couples appear like mutant entities (centaurs, radioactive nymphs) I had a sense of otherworldliness—the sense one gets too from Cocteau, for example, or from Last Year in Marienbad—and it recurred when Vera does yoga in her body stocking and she seems like a wraith … or a plastic cyborg (when Almodóvar shows close-ups of Vera’s torso, the skin is either airbrushed or heavily made-up), a life-size, transgenetic Barbie. The sight of Vera exercising entrances returning Zeca and this crazy priapic tiger man also belongs as much to fantasy as to black comedy. And I suppose I like what you call “indifference to time and place” because it it’s related to the oneiric, the eerie.
You mention the torn dress fabric and in Almodóvar’s statement he says this about the little boutique to which Vera returns at the end: “Women’s dresses, in different colours and from different periods, are hanging from the walls and ceiling. Because of the way they’re lit, they look like ghosts of women. It’s just at that moment when the ghost of her own femininity disappears. As soon as she steps into her mother’s shop, Vera feels that she’s Vicente.” So, yes, there’s an unfamiliar true-to-self conservatism (which is, however, a reworking of the director’s own “body” of work), but there’s also this haunting dimension of becoming-inhuman (vampire, alien, ghost, doll) that makes Skin so interesting to me. It’s what links the aestheticization (which is a kind of dehumanization), mythopoeic flourishes, and even the film’s inordinate amount of product placement. The closing credits’ list of big-brand partners—everything from Le Creuset to D&G by Madonna—goes on forever, and invites an interpretation of the film in terms of commodification and the spectacle as well as alienation. That rampant product placement might gesture at one more loss: of the director’s creative independence, even his arthouse soul! But I’m ready to give Almodóvar the benefit of the doubt on the question of selling out because of the portal that opens up in Skin to the uncanny.
Paul Julian Smith: Your reference to the uncanny opens up an area we haven’t mentioned yet: the film’s debt to Louise Bourgeois. As you will remember, doubles and dolls figure heavily in Freud’s essay on the uncanny; and in Skin Vera stitches together fragments of cloth to make faceless (defaced?) figures inspired by Bourgeois’s sculptures. Maybe this use of fabric is a connection between the two apparently contradictory tendencies you highlight in the film: its consumerism and its eeriness. Like Vera, Almodóvar explores therapeutic suture (the piecing together of cloth, skin, and celluloid), making it a trope for psychic fragmentation but also reconstruction. One quote pencilled on Vera’s wall diary is said to come from a book by Bourgeois: “Art is the guarantee of health.”
This seems like a crazy motto for such a deeply unhealthy film, once that takes such (un-)pleasure in disappointment and distress. But perhaps, at the level not of narrative but of cinematography and mise-en-scène, there are hints of more positive possibilities. At one point Vera (echoing Titian’s Venus d’Urbino, prominent on Ledgard’s landing) reclines on the TV screen facing toward the right; mounting his sofa to take in the view, Robert reclines also, his own legs stretching to the left. This old ideal of symmetry between the sexes (of the possibility, however mediated, of a sexual relation) recurs in another striking shot: a close-up of Vicente (on the right) dissolves to reveal (on the left) the Vera he will have become after six years of surgery. The characters share the frame for a fragile moment. Almodóvar’s commentary reads: “Two faces, two sexes, two bodies, but the same identity.”
But maybe the effects of that eerie doubling cannot be so easily curtailed. Late in Skin Vera, her Pygmalion-like transformation complete, says to the now doting doctor: “The easiest thing [for us] would be to live, to live together.” (The Spanish dialogue makes the connection yet closer: vivir and convivir.) It’s not clear what Vera’s motivation is here (Almodóvar himself suggests that she has “become reconciled to her kidnapper”). But Skin surely shows that nothing is more difficult than everyday domesticity, that living together is by no means easy. And, more profoundly, Almodóvar hints, like Freud again, that home and horror are intimately connected. Vera escapes the torture chamber but only to return to mother, a reconciliation that (unlike in Volver) Almodóvar declines to show us. Perhaps the final moral of this unsettling film is quite simple, and one that applies to character and director alike: that, after such knowledge (such experience), “You can’t go home again.”