Screening Log #20: La piel que habito (The Skin I Live In) (2011)

Written by Pedro Almodóvar based on the novel Mygale by Thierry Jonquet
Directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Starring Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Jan Cornet, and Marisa Paredes

At once unlike anything I’ve previously seen from Almodóvar, and completely in keeping with certain elements of melodrama and his distinct aesthetic style, The Skin I Live In leaves me in a strange position to write from. A film whose images comprise its trailer, but which, when seen, is altogether another picture entirely, replete with a complicated narrative that Almodóvar disentangles piece-meal through jumps backward and forward in time. Banderas gives as strong a performance as he has in years in a film that deftly feints in one direction before swerving toward complex, murky, material.

Antonio Banderas plays accomplished surgeon and researcher Robert Ledgard who operates out of a clinic on his palatial estate where he keeps a patient, Elena Anaya as Vera Cruz, under lock and key while goes about a daily routine of yoga and stitching together pieces of fabric. After a talk at a conference, wherein he states that he has synthesized a new form of artificial skin that is stronger than human skin, Ledgard is warned by his boss that the process by which this skin was created – transgenesis, or the mixing of genetic material from one species to another – was scientifically unethical despite the potential advances it could have. This transgenesis process is a theme made manifest when Ledger’s home is invaded by the son of his housekeeper, Marisa Paredes as Marilia, who is dressed in a lion costume to avoid police detection. In this character the assignment of animalistic traits to a human gains negative embodiment in a selfish, appetitive man.

This interrogation, and explication of, transgressive activity is what lies behind the ostensibly science fiction foregrounding of the plot. Ledger has, in his past, events that move him to fundamentally deconstruct the physical manner in which the body is assembled. His medical knowledge and skill have provided him with the tools by which to alter the physical, to reconfigure it. That ideas of gender are constructs and malleable is not novel – gender essentialism has largely fallen out of favour – however, the manner and extent to which Almodóvar carries these ideas into the physical realm are interesting, if perplexing when carried to their logical conclusions.

A character having their gender completely re-assigned, both physically and, in many ways, behaviorally, would be specious in most other filmmaker’s work; I am compelled by Almodóvar’s other work to give him a reprieve from immediately condemning this re-assignment and its utilization in the film – is it a punishment? a personal salve? – as being something necessarily misogynistic. Given that Ledgard’s research into developing a stronger skin is certainly symptomatic, both narratively and in terms of the character’s psychology, of his searching to cure his mental wounds previously gained, it is possible that this line of inquiry into the role of gender in interpersonal relationships, and how it’s manipulation is employed by Ledgard, is more sincere. The character in question is not castrated, but, rather, transformed completely; the relationship moves beyond its antagonistic origins into something more complex, messy, and ultimately very sad.

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