First, I’d like to be on record as saying that Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In is a film worth seeing. So see it and then continue reading. Otherwise, be prepared for major spoiler alerts
Last night, we watched the film. This morning, on our walk, my dear husband tried to explain to me Almodóvar’s ongoing cinematic interests. Here’s what I recall from that conversation.
Him: Almodóvar is interested in gender-bending.
Me: Then, why didn’t Vincent perform as women do? Or at least consider that he’d become a woman? Or be afraid that he would become a woman? Or wonder what it means to “be a woman” beyond having a cunt (film’s description). Let’s adopt Judith Butler’s premise that we are how we perform. That is, if someone acts like a woman—regardless of body parts—she is a woman. So let’s look at the behavior of Vincent turned Robert-renamed Vera.
- Vincent watches the huge flat screen: National Geographic and some old movie don’t catch his interest. However, the promises of mind-control and personal freedom through a life of yoga do. Makes sense but hardly a female attraction. Although the film first shows us Vincent’s yoga practice through a voyeuristic lens in which we think we’re watching a slinky female contort her body into highly-flexible poses, we later realize (when we view the info-commercial’s promises of a better mental and emotional life along with Vincent) that we’ve been watching Vincent search for some semblance of control and comfort. What once seemed to be the actions of an alluring female, we realize is the androgynous quest for peace and comfort. Nothing female there.
- Vincent enlarges his vaginal opening with a series of bigger dildos. The only reason he participates in this practice is because he has no choice. Robert commands; Vincent obeys. It’s not complicated because Vincent is the prisoner. But shouldn’t his reaction to repeated enlarging dildo use be complicated? After his vaginoplasty, shouldn’t he be able to pleasure himself with the dildos? Wouldn’t that upset him as he clings to his maleness? At the very least, shouldn’t that self-pleasuring confuse his sexual orientation? But we don’t know because we never see him do this and we never hear him talk about it. We just know that it enlarged his “orifice”—the film’s particularly non-sexual description.
- Vincent, the rapist, himself endures a rape and suffers the raw physical aftermath, which allows him to postpone sex with Robert. He’s not acting coquettishly female, he’s damn sore. And when he complains that he’s still raw from being raped, he questions Robert’s suggestion to “do it from behind” as being painful. It’s not clear what “from behind” means. Regardless, wouldn’t this just as likely be a male response?
- Vincent wears a skin-tight body suit because Robert scientifically explains that it’s to be Vincent’s “second skin.” I’m confused what that means because I thought the new skin was basically, indestructible. Anyway, Vincent goes along with Robert’s order and wears it. Does he enjoy this gender-bending apparel? He doesn’t seem to. For, aside from the outline of his small-medium size breasts, he looks surprisingly androgynous in his body suit. And although he wears the body suit, he rejects more clearly female attire—a selection of dresses. Violently shredding the dresses sent to him and sucking their tatters away using the wall vacuum, Vincent rejects crossing the line between androgynous clothing and female apparel. I don’t see any gender-bending here.
- Vincent writes on the walls, recording his days as more of a catalogue of dates than a diary of emotions. So emotionless are his recordings, I wonder why he bothers. For whatever reason, he fills up the walls with dates rather than melodramatic musings. He doesn’t seem confused by his situation. He seems driven. Dare I suggest that as a male stereotype?
In short, Vincent doesn’t adopt any particularly female behavior that I can see. In fact, his assurance that he remains male is almost unrealistic.
ME: So for the director, identity is fluid? Ok, then why, when Vincent sees his picture in the newspaper article for missing persons, does he kiss his photo? Why does he, at the film’s end, announce to Christina and his mother that he is “Vincent” and that his changed appearance is only because of alterations of his physical? True, he’s wearing a dress when he reunites with his mother and shopmate but that’s for the purpose of identification: the last private conversation he had with Christina focused on her refusing the dress and suggesting he wear the dress, implying a female sexual orientation. It’s neither ironic nor revelatory that the dress becomes his access back into his old life. It’s a plot device. It makes sense. It’s not a statement that he’s merged into the Robert-imposed Vera identity. The marvel of the movie is that Vincent never once questions that he is still Vincent—not Vera—and that all of these changes are only physical—not identifying—and that he doesn’t deserve what happened to him. He is one of the best (although perhaps, unrealistic) modern examples of Plato’s belief in an essential core identity.
Him: The title suggests a Platonic duality.
ME: I was lost and asked for clarification. RW: “skin” = body. “I live in” = soul. The second equation is not nearly as obvious to me as the first is. However, I do credit the film’s duality—independent of its title: Vincent’s body is separate from Vincent’s identity. On the other hand, Vincent’s male-altered female body recreates for Robert his deceased wife’s body. So for Robert, body = soul—no duality. But for Vincent, body ≠ soul–duality. And that non-equation triumphs at the end. So I guess that I do see the Platonic duality being played with.
Me: It’s hard to dispute that every story with a mad scientist (and this guy is a real perv, as well) echoes Frankenstein. However, note the dissimilarities within the similarities:
- Same: Both scientists remold human life.
Different: Their motives. Victor Frankenstein wants to alleviate death from mankind. At first, we think that Robert is revenging his daughter’s rape; but later, we see that he is attempting to renew his physical (including sexual) relationship with his deceased wife. One noble reason; one ignoble reason. Big difference.
- Same: Both creations attempt a relationship with their creators.
Different: Again, their motives. The monster longs for a father-son relationship because he yearns for tutelage and human companionship. Vincent only pretends his loyalty to Robert in order to escape. That doesn’t make his motives any less profound than the Monster’s, but it does make the story more about plot than character and the human condition. Huge difference. (Hardly anybody must read Shelley or they’d get that it’s about so much more than the stupid experiment.)
- Same: Both creations attempt to destroy their creators.
Different: Motive again. Victor abandons his creation after cursing him to live a self-exiled life in a mutilated body whereas Robert clings to his creation after cursing him to live a forced exile in a gorgeous body. The Monster has nothing but his freedom to wander. Vincent has everything but his freedom to leave. An important difference.
The movie, for me, recalls Poe’s works on revenge, which always (ultimately) ruins the revenger. Not only is Robert dead by the film’s end but before that, he is seduced and duped by his creation. What Poe does so much better, though, is show us how the act of revenge—not the victim—causes the revenger’s demise. It’s more psychological; more complicated; and probably, more realistic. Certainly, more worthwhile, self-examination-wise.
What I’ve omitted from our conversation is my if-only-I’d-directed-the-film commentary.
- Let’s say I’d undergone treatments to attach testicles and a penis, enjoyed the forgetfulness of opium, suffered the isolation of human contact except intercom voices and my abductor’s intermittent visits, and suspected that I was surveilled at all times. I’m sure that I’d be confused about not just what I’ve become, but who. After all, I live in a post-modern, Western world of identity fluidity. Although that concept doesn’t need to confine me, I still can’t escape its influences to some degree. That’s why the movie needs at least one scene in which Vincent considers adopting the Robert-imposed/-created Vera persona.
- Along that same line, the reunion with his mother should have been explored and complicated. She stares at him/her. He stares back as him—announcing he’s “Vincent,” her son. That staring and declaration is the end of film. Why doesn’t the film explore the complexity of his reentry into his family and social life—if not for him, at least for others?
- The victim is the rapist. That’s seems like it should be complicated but not for this movie. Shouldn’t we see Vincent explore his guilt beyond his defense that he was drugged out and doesn’t remember? And what about the parents? Where is a Freudian to wonder how the mother’s (suspected) adultery and father’s creepy mad scientist domestic life contribute to their daughter’s suicide—beyond the rape?
- The revenger becomes a pervert. Shouldn’t we see Robert at least question why his revenge turns obsession? At first, the revenge is clear: the kidnapped Vincent—chained, starved, and abandoned—will pay for raping Robert’s daughter. He will lose his genitalia and gain a woman’s. The rest of his appearance will surgically and cosmetically become female-aligned. At some point in viewing the movie, I began to wonder how far this revenge was going. Why the breasts? The makeup? The hairstyle? Then, I realized that Robert was trying to recreate his dead wife. But I couldn’t determine if he was doing that from the start. Did he initially think that he’d simultaneously punish his daughter’s rapist and also reclaim his wife? What I couldn’t get past (because the movie fails to explore) was that the guy wants to have sex and, possibly, a marital-like relationship, with someone who raped his daughter. That seems like two very different flow charts he’s going down. Where is the scene that explains that flow chart or justifies him switching from one chart to the other? I need that scene to explain if Robert was a crazy perv from the beginning or if revenge sparked/created some perviness in him.
- The creation kills his creator. One quick gunshot. Robert slumps. Robert dies. For the entire movie, I’ve been waiting for Vincent’s revenge on his revenger—not just in actions but in speech. Where is the “you’ve done me wrong” castigation speech? Where is the “you’re a bigger perv than I am” diatribe? All we get is Vincent acknowledging, “I lied” when, in disbelief, Robert questions his betrayal. I want much more. Even most Westerns would give me a pre-gunfight speech, explaining (but not detailing) the moral compass of the film. How much more morally satisfying it would be to hear Vincent and Robert duke it out with their justifications and accusations. Remember those great confrontations between creation and creator that Mary Shelley gives us? That’s all I’m asking for.
In summary, the film had great potential. It could have explored numerous post-modern questions: Are we female or male because we perform as such? Can we choose to be female or male? Can our “cultures” successfully impose female and male identities on us? Are scientific experiments dangerous when performed in secret? What should be the limits of physically altering the bodies we’re born with? How responsible are we for our behavior when operating impaired? Is identity fluid or can we adhere to some core version of ourselves despite “cultural” stimuli and expectations? Does revenge corrupt the revenger? I’ll stop there.
I’m not demanding answers. I just wish that the film had explored these questions. However, its aftermath—my conversing and blogging—have questioned. So maybe the film’s ending is meant to be confrontational (See Marianna Torgovnick). It certainly made me mad. And it also made me think…and question.
OK, now I’m feeling a little satisfied.
The Skin I Live In (2011) La piel que habito (original title)