The Skin I Live In
‘The Skin I Live In’ or ‘La piel que habito’ as it’s known in its home language is a 2011 body horror film like no other. Directed by the acclaimed Pedro Almodóva, he describes it as ‘”a horror story without screams or frights” which is exactly why it makes this particular film so unique; although it’s classed as a Psychological Thriller, the plot, the characters and the emotions are that of pure horror, no question about it. The film stars Antonio Banderas as Dr. Robert Ledgard, a famous but unstable plastic surgeon and Elena Anaya as ‘Vera’ who is, ultimately, Ledgard’s guinea pig.
The plot, for the most part, centers around these characters while going into their pasts for a decent sized portion of the film. As stated, Banderas plays the familiar ‘mad scientist’ role who is shunned by his medical peers for trying to develop a breakthrough in bio-medical science by creating synthetic skin which is resistant to burns, insect bites or cuts through the use of transgenesis (mixing the cells of a human and a pig). Although his medical peers deem this a mutation, Ledgard is obsessed with the idea, it’s innovation, motivated through the tragic suicide of his wife who was heavily burned in a car accident. Unknown to everyone else except his mother, Ledgard already has a human test subject in the form of ‘Vera’, a woman who is dressed in a synthetic skin coloured suit and kept as a prisoner in one of the rooms within Ledgard’s own home. What follows is a film which chronicles the increasing insanity of Ledgard, determined to perfect his test subject while others grow sceptical of his true intentions, the horrific history between Robert and Vera, spanning across six years, is unveiled throughout the plot in a non-linear fashion in the footsteps of Hitchcock.
It’s quite hard not to talk about the LGBT themes within this film without spoiling it; it’s not until the ‘twist’ that these themes really become apparent and a rather interesting subtext within the plot unfolds. Therefore, I would recommend that you watch this film before reading the review; an odd set of circumstances, I know, but trust me, going into the film knowing hardly anything is the best way. I will be spoiling the film from this point.
Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I can reveal the twist. The reason I have used the name ‘Vera’ in inverted commas is because ‘Vera’ is not actually ‘Vera’. She is Vincente, a young man who Ledgard kidnapped and performed a vaginoplasty (sex change) on because he believed that Vincente raped his daughter ,Nora, leading to her breakdown and eventual suicide. Banderas manages to track down Vincente, who we see working in his mothers’ dressmaking shop, before taking action and setting the films events into motion. One of the characters that Vincente is interested in, also works within the dressmaking shop, Christa, however, unfortunately for him, she is a lesbian. Obviously the big LGBT theme in this film is transsexualism with slight hints of pansexuality.
There are a lot of clues given to us that make us wonder about Vincente; sexual identity has nothing to do with gender identity, but there are some clues that make us wonder about Vincente. He seems to be a very repressed character, one who abuses substances in order to escape from his existence for a short time. He mentions within the film that he is desperate for change and there is an awkward scene where he holds a dress up to himself: he seems to be memorised by female clothing. I’m not saying that he is gay or a repressed transsexual, because there is more evidence that he is not, rather than he is, but I feel like these points were worth noting, perhaps it’s a dark sense of irony on Almodóva’s part. After the sex change operation, Ledgard presents a bunch of different sized dildos to Vincente, who has just seen his new sexual organs for the first time, while still retaining his masculine identity, explaining that he wants Vincente to begin inserting them into his new orifice so that the wound doesn’t heal up. Obviously those of you who are heterosexual males, could understand how disturbing an idea this would be for someone, especially after they have underwent physical abuse and unconsenting gender reassignment surgery. It’s continuous mental torture.
Banderas’ role as the ‘mad scientist’ is one in particular that I found very interesting. For one, he falls completely in love with his creation, his ‘Frankenstein monster’, so to speak. Taking apart everything that identifies as male within Vincente and creating what Ledgard believes to be the perfect female within Vera, even grafting the synthetic skin over Vincente’s own, sealing his new fate. It’s a dark study in sexual identification. He successfully manages to exude the charisma and sexuality that made him famous while at the same time removing the Hollywood archetypal sex symbol status that we’ve all come to identify him with.
Elena Anaya is absolutely stunning in this role; she expresses most of her emotions through her eyes which ,you can see, are just seething with pain and anger. As she is now completely unidentifiable as Vincente, you can really see the horror that lays within this film. It’s one thing for some chainsaw wielding maniac to slice up a couple of teens before returning in a sequel, but this person has had their entire identity removed, even to the point where they cannot fully remember who they once were. “He” becomes a “She” as commanded by her captor, so desperate for human contact and a chance to escape, that she disregards her sexual identity as a previously heterosexual male in a warped Stockholm Syndrome scenario in order to plan her escape. Banderas cannot be labelled as heterosexual or homosexual, or even bisexual within this film as he modelled Vera after his late wife. He’s in love with the idea of his creation and the product of his hands to the point where they both have a sexual relationship, desperate for some form of love within the world.
I’ll say flat out here, the film is shot absolutely beautifully, very old school cinema. The cinematographer, José Luis Alcaine, really has to be credited for his work in ‘The Skin I Live In’, successfully collaborating with Almodóva to create a disturbingly beautiful universe like no other. Although the film isn’t very colourful, it heavily uses skin-like tones in certain scenes in order to entice the viewer, disgusting but seducing you at the very same time: it’s almost Kubrick-like in the way it makes terror and violence visually beautiful. Despite the fact that the film is subtitled, you are still able to admire the cinematography while ingesting the dialogue.
I really could write about this film for pages and pages, but it’s one that is best seen for yourself and I hope those of you who have read this far have seen the film. Despite the fact that all would not be lost if curiosity had gotten the better of you, the twist is a huge revelation of the film and the root of the horror. From the moment it begins to the moment it ends, you will be hooked. ‘The Skin I Live In’ is a true study in human identification and begs us to consider if we are comfortable in our own skin while at the same time, getting under it. It’s a perfectly executed horror story in every possible sense.
– Jozef Hamilton