“It was not until I attended a few post mortems that I realised that even the ugliest exteriors may contain the most beautiful viscera, and was able to console myself for the facial drabness of my neighbours in omnibuses by dissecting them in my imagination.” - J. B. S. Haldane
Last weekend we watched Pedro Almodóvar’s 2011 film “The Skin I Live In”, starring Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes and Jan Cornet. The screenplay by Agustín Almodóvar and Pedro Almodóvar was based on the novel “Mygale” (Tarantula) by Thierry Jonquet. As is typical of this director, the film was quite a confronting one, especially where matters of sex and gender are concerned. However, the themes explored were multiple and interrelated, and included rape and revenge, beauty and its perception of itself (as well as its perception by others), the ethics of medical research and the lengths to which we may go in order to defend those whom we love.
The film is structured in three sections, the middle part being an extended flashback that does much to explain what has transpired in the first part. The third part is the flash-forward to the present where the story is concluded and the film resolves itself. The plot centres on a highly successful plastic surgeon, Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) who also does medical research into skin transplantation. This research has been stimulated by the horrific and disfiguring burns that his wife sustained in a car accident before she died. His methods are highly unorthodox and his sense of bioethics completely warped.
The surgeon has a daughter, Norma (Blanca Suárez) who has been psychologically damaged by her mother’s death, and it is only slowly and painfully that she begins act normally again, under the guidance of a psychiatrist and her father’s care. At a party, Norma in all innocence receives the sexual attentions of a young man who nearly rapes her but manages to escape when she becomes hysterical and falls unconscious. This causes Norma to lapse back into her deeply disturbed state and is confined to the psychiatric clinic again, being unable to even meet her father, as the encounters with men disturb her. Her condition deteriorates and like her mother she throws herself out of a window and kills herself.
The surgeon renews his research enquiries and his obsessive need to find the perfect injury-resistant and blemishless skin seems to be crowned with success. The guinea pig he is using is a beautiful young woman, Vera Cruz (Elena Anaya) whom he keeps incarcerated in his house and with whom he has a complex relationship as she resembles very much his dead wife. Is this his wife, who did not die after all? What role does the mysterious housekeeper play? What were the circumstances behind Norma’s condition and death? Several mysterious incidents are presented and confound the viewer until the flashback fully explains what has really transpired.
While this movie was just over two hours long, we enjoyed it and were kept interested by the unconventional plot. It felt like a thriller/horror story for quite a lot of the time, especially as there were some graphic scenes of medical gore and violence. However, this resemblance to a horror movie is only superficial as the themes go deeper and relate to sexuality, identity gender and self-image. Revenge motivates more than one character in the film and the ambiguity of the morality of several characters makes the viewer vacillate between sympathy and antipathy on more than one occasion. It is quite a complex, rich story and one can read much into what occurs and why.
The acting is very good, the cinematography wonderful and there is no question about Almodóvar’s masterful direction. We recommend this film, although it will make a squeamish person’s stomach turn as there are challenging themes and gory images. The sexual themes, strong language and the graphic rape scenes may also prove to be too confronting for some viewers, so be warned.