When I went over to a friend’s house to watch a movie, he presented me with several recent rentals and let me pick one. “What’s this one?” “An early anti-western.” “And this one?” “Oh, that one’s really good, but I need to wait to watch that one with my girlfriend.” “What’s The Skin I Live In?” “It’s a horror film by Pedro Almodóvar.” So in.
Of course, my only real experiences with Almodóvar came over ten years ago, when I saw Todo sobre mi madre (All About My Mother) and La mala educación (Bad Education) in my freshman year of college, and a few years later when I saw ¡Átame! (Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down) and was displeased with the film’s overall themes. Still, although the former two films have faded in my memory like paper flowers left in the sun, I was excited to see his approach to a straight-up horror flick. That’s not really what The Skin I Live In was, but it was all the better for it.
The film follows Roberto Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), a plastic surgeon who has tragically lost both his wife and daughter to suicide, the former after she catches sight of the reflection of her badly burned face following extensive reconstructive surgery, and the latter after a lifetime of mental illness resulting from witnessing her mother’s fateful leap to her death. As a result, he keeps a mysterious woman named Vera (Elena Anaya) locked away in a (metaphorical) gilded cage in his palatial home and experiments on her to create a skin that is resistant to fire. Vera’s only connection to the outside world besides Roberto and a few television channels is Marilia (Marisa Paredes), a domestic servant of Roberto’s who has been with his family since before his birth. When Roberto is away, Marilia’s son Zeca (Roberto Álamo) reappears during Carnival and discovers the imprisoned Vera and believes that she is actually Roberto’s dead wife, with whom he had an affair.
While Zeca forces himself on the woman he believes to be his lost love, Roberto returns and kills him to protect the fact that he has secreted Vera away. Vera’s offer to stay with Roberto, ostensibly out of love for him, elevates her from captivity to his bed, where dreams relate the tale of the fateful night that drove Roberto’s daughter Norma (Blanca Suárez) to her final throes of madness. Six years prior, Roberto took Norma from the sanitarium that has been her home for many years to attend a wedding, where she meets Vicente (Jan Cornet). Vicente is a sensitive young man who works in his mother’s vintage boutique, but who is nevertheless too fond of recreational drugs– so much so that when he hits it off with Norma at the wedding, he is too pilled-out to recognize that she is mentally unwell. As various young couples in the same garden engage in sexual acts, Norma objects to Vicente’s physical advances; as he disengages, she bites him and he strikes her before fleeing the scene. Roberto comes upon Norma lying near the tree as Vicente speeds away on his motorcycle, leaving the surgeon to assume the worst.
That’s already spoiler-heavy enough that I’m hesitant to say more, as I encourage you to seek the film out and form your own opinion, especially given some of the more controversial elements. As a trigger warning, it is imperative to understand before viewing that there is at least one rape scene in this film. Perhaps there are more, but given the film’s various and occasionally conflicting points of view on agency, consent, deception, gender, mental health, and overall sexual politics, you as a viewer will find yourself questioning the motivations and preconceptions not only of the characters but also yourself. (Also, unlike Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down, the sexual violence is treated respectfully, rather than as erotic or titillating, which it s a valid criticism of Almodóvar’s earlier work.)
At turns provocative and disquieting, The Skin I Live In is relentless in the way that its unfolding narrative forces the viewer to re-evaluate every previous scene with each new revelation. Do our sympathies for Roberto outweigh the fact that the well of his monstrosity is deeper and darker? His ultimate fate is a consequence of his inability to accept the reality of his life (which is related to his being a plastic surgeon, which is conventionally considered a position that exists solely due to society’s vanity) and let go of that which has been lost (which is more reflective of his well-intentioned scientific drive to build a better human skin through unethical experimentation, as well as his activities as a reconstructive, restorative plastic surgeon). It’s a film that rewards close attention and empathy; as each fleshy layer is peeled away, the viewer finds him- or herself challenged, but the experience is ultimately fruitful.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond