Pedro Almodovar’s new film The skin I live in has taken over my brain. This post is full of spoilers so if you haven’t seen the film, and want to, stop reading now. Antonio Banderas stars as a super villian mad scientist doctor with the look of James Bond. He does superb menace. Slinky amoral menace. Best kind I suppose.
The plot concerns a woman, Marilia, who had two sons: one to her partner and one to her boss. The first, Zeca, grows up to be a criminal who is willing to bind and gag his own mother in the pursuit of his crimes. She gives the other (Robert Ledgard) to his father and his wife to be raised as their son. Ledgard knows her as his childhood housekeeper and later employers her himself. He doesn’t know she’s his mother and the sons don’t know they’re half brothers.
Fast forward to a dozen years before the present. Ledgard loses his wife, who nearly died in a crashed burning car while having an affair with Ledgard’s unknown half-brother. He saved her but about a year later she kills herself when she recovers enough to see how disfigured she is.
Six years later, Ledgard attends a wedding with his young adult daughter, who is psychologically fragile and who has been in a psychiatric institution. A young man, Vincente, is attracted to her, and attempts to rape her but is thwarted. She has passed out and awakes to see her father, and mistakenly believes he tried to rape her. She is reinstitutionalised and then commits suicide.
Ledgard engages in some grand revenge. He kidnaps Vincente and emasculates him by surgically removing his penis and testicles, then creates a vagina, as would be done in sexual reassignment. Ledgard is also determined to invent a superior human skin, one that can withstand fire and other causes of injury. He starts using Vincente as a lab rat to test his experimental transgenic skin on and transforms him into a beautiful women who is a simulation of his dead wife.
Fast forward 6 years to the present. Vincente, now known as Vera, is kept captive in a large room in Ledgard’s country villa, which also contains his operating theatre and research lab. Marilia works there as Ledgard’s housekeeper and believes Vera to be a genuine patient, not a captive. Ledgard smokes opium with Vera, who appears compliant and is perhaps suffering from Stockholm syndrome.
While Ledgard is away Zeca visits unexpectedly while on the run from the police, subdues his mother, then rapes Vera. Ledgard arrives, rescues Vera and kills Zeca, his half-brother. He later has sex with Vera. It’s hard to tell if this is the first time or not. Some time later, having convinced Ledgard that she is trustworthy, Vera kills him and her other captor Marilia, then flees to find her/his mother.
The double dose of traumatic mother / son relationships is the most familiar aspect of this film, as it is one of Almodovar’s repeated themes. The forced feminisation of Vincente further explores the theme of transsexuality that also featured in Bad Education.
What I found most disturbing was the amorality of Ledgard. His behaviour suggests he thinks rape is wrong, but then he seems willing to rape Vincente / Vera, which implies he is acting in revenge regardless of the hypocrisy of the situation. He is inhuman.
I was also curious about the representation of Vincente / Vera, what people think of the representation of transsexuality, and what trans people would think of it. You can read generally positive commentaries from a trans man, a trans woman and a reviewer who gives it ‘3 Unicorns for score, cinematography and acting, and 2 Glitterbombs for rape scenes and “fucked up evil man stuff” (a technical term)‘.
Almodovar’s films are unapologetically rapey, and watching them can feel like an amoral experience. Despite this, I think I need to see it again. It’s very early in the year but it may be the best film of the year.