Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Writer: Pedro Almodóvar, Thierry Jonquet (novel)
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Jan Cornet
Note: All my reviews contain spoilers. Most of the time they are insignificant. This is an exception. If you haven’t seen the film, go and see it. Note the number of stars; it will be worth it. Then come back and read.
It should go without saying that Pedro Almodóvar is a bold director, but The Skin I Live In could well be his boldest film yet. The central character, Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), is a brilliant cosmetic surgeon who experiments on a beautiful woman, Vera (Elena Anaya), he keeps imprisoned in his house.
Almodóvar and his central character are both aesthetes, so it is not surprising that this film is an aesthetic triumph. Robert collects and lavishly displays works of art in his house, and, like other great artists, is obsessed with the idea of human perfection. Michaelangelo saw sculpture as the ideal means to reproduce this perfection; Robert has the means to sculpt humans themselves. He moulds Vera into the object of his desire, giving her a perfect figure and his dead wife’s face. Almodóvar and his cinematographer, Jose Luis Alcaine, are masterful at creating the shots to match this artistic obsession. Dead bodies are sprawled in Caravaggian poses, with rippling muscles and pools of deep red blood. The film has a decadent beauty; there is much of Oscar Wilde in it, and not just in the opium pipe.
Vera also produces sculpture, but hers are grotesque modern forms growing out of the clay. She represents both perfection and deformity – it is a matter of perception – but, to herself, she is clearly the latter. Her room, unlike the rest of the house, is bare and cold. It is a modernist cube, a prison, decorated by her writing on the wall. It is also a gallery, designed to display her beauty to Robert through his cameras. She quite naturally takes up those poses familiar to art. Stylistically, her room also resembles the operating theatre; she is defined by her modifications. She wears a one piece black latex suit, a mask; these obscure her identity, her external value, her beauty.
Almodóvar has great style, but to focus only on the style here would be missing the point. Superficiality is punished brutally in the film. What lies beneath the skin has never been so significant. The character of Zeca (Roberto Álamo) identifies himself through a birthmark and mistakes Vera for Robert’s dead wife because they have the same face. Vicente (Jan Cornet) sees a pretty girl remove her cardigan and shoes and assumes she wants to have sex with him. Both commit rapes based on these misjudgements. Finally, Robert allows himself to be deceived by Vera’s face, her skin, ignoring, or forgetting, what lies beneath it.
Vera is the only character who, because of who she is, cannot be superficial. She becomes a character of great depth; through suffering, through yoga, through sculpture, she is forced inwards and learns the meaning of identity and what lies at the core of her being. She is transformed; she grows.
So who is Vera? Almodóvar is a master of non-linear narrative, and he uses the technique to great effect to obscure, and then to reveal her identity. The realisation of what is truly going on comes gradually. An apparent subplot becomes the very foundation of the film and the effect is staggering. A shocking story appears to reach its climax before Almodóvar pulls the rug from under our feet, forcing us to question everything that has gone before. There is no grand reveal, the details come slowly. Almodóvar lets us realise for ourselves and the twist is all the more shocking for it.
Vicente raped Robert’s daughter, out of naivety rather than malice, which drove her to insanity and suicide. Robert kidnapped Vicente and gradually transformed him into a woman, into Vera. Prior to this flashback, Robert rescued Vera as she was being raped by Zeca, and freed her from her room. They made a pact to live together as equals, as lovers. The last shot we were shown was them sharing a bed.
Almodóvar’s insistence on moral ambiguity is what makes The Skin I Live In a great film. Motivation is everything. The basics are there, but specific details are difficult to extract. At what stage did Robert see Vera as anything more than an experiment? When did he decide to give her his dead wife’s face, and why? It is inconceivable that he imagined they would end up sharing a bed together from the beginning, but it is equally inconceivable that it had not crossed his mind until the end. As for the ending, at what stage did Vera decide to kill Robert? Did she attempt to forget who she was in order to keep her vow to him? It is certainly hinted at. Did she abhor Robert himself, or the identity he had given her, or did she simply lament the loss of the one he had taken away? Did she consider him to be a monster? Banderas, incidentally, is monstrous, precisely because he refuses to play the monster. His character is dangerous, obsessive, arrogant, but as Vera approaches him holding the gun that will kill him, he asks her, with a straight face, if she is joking. You might say he had a lot of nerve asking her that. It is also a kind of innocence.
The final scene is strangely touching given what has come before. Vera returns to her mother’s shop where she, as Vicente, used to work. She explains to her former colleague, a lesbian she had fallen for, what happened to her. She then tells her mother who she really is and breaks down into tears. The screen fades to black. This is an affirmation of identity, a fundamental identity, not a history, an appearance, a gender, but a soul. At heart Vera will always be Vicente, and whatever that represents. However, Almodóvar does not make the ending straightforward. The tone is not one of regret. It is hinted that Vera may get the girl, and, in doing so, achieve something Vicente never could. She is already a much stronger character than he ever was. There may yet be a Hollywood ending in store. Almodóvar does not go so far as to suggest it. To portray it would be tantamount to vindication. That would be too bold.