'The Skin I Live In': Ideas on Gender and Power

Impeccably filmed and laden with intriguing, thorny ideas, The Skin I Live In is nonetheless a glassy, curiously reserved affair comprised of equal parts camp and melodrama.

The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito)

Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Blanca Suárez, Jan Cornet, Marisa Paredes
Rated: R
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Year: 2011
US Release Date: 2011-10-14 (Limited release)
UK date: 2011-08-26 (General release)

Impeccably filmed and laden with intriguing, thorny ideas, The Skin I Live In is nonetheless a glassy, curiously reserved affair comprised of equal parts camp and melodrama. It's also something else: Pedro Almodóvar has said that his adaptation of Thierry Jonquet’s novel Tarantula, represents his version of a "horror story." The film treats this generic frame as a hollow shell, within which it spins a complex web of bizarre ideas and motifs.

In his isolated Toledo villa, El Cigarral, a brilliant, stern, and obsessive surgeon, Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), is working on an indestructible, artificial skin. In flashbacks, we learn of the motivating loss in his life: his wife was burned nearly to death in a car accident, and put herself out of her misery while he worked desperately to save her. His daughter was confined to a mental asylum and eventually passed away too, an event Ledgard blames on her being raped. His only company in his mansion is his mother, Marilia (long-time Almodóvar collaborator Marisa Paredes), and Vera (Elena Anaya), whom he keeps behind glass as his experiment.

The Skin I Live In’s storyline is disorienting and difficult to accept, more so because Almodóvar deliberately splinters the structure into an awkward circular gait that keeps us off balance almost until the end. As it transpires, Vera is Ledgard’s victim: he has performed an extreme and terrifying act on her that has completely altered her identity. You could regard the whole film as her journey to discover who she is.

Except that it is not. The Skin I Live In seems actively to discourage our identification with Vera or any other character. All of them are equally dislikeable, even empty. Almodóvar’s direction is exacting, resulting in a picture that feels as clinical as its protagonist. As if to compensate, the director furnishes the set with revealing hints. Some are obvious: Vera is fitted in a cream-coloured yoga suit, like a second skin; Banderas goes about in heavy black clothes that suggest the heaviness of his grief, or perhaps his lack of compassion. And we know that, when a man dressed up in a tiger suit turns up at the front door, this can only be bad news. Other elements are more esoteric: Ledgard’s villa is adorned with Titian’s nudes, and there are allusions to Louise Bourgeois in Vera’s behaviour. The colour red is frequently used, a glossy motif -- somehow, however, the blood in the film looks alien.

The contrast between the expressionism of Almodóvar’s set and the coldness of his performers is puzzling. The director reportedly instructed Banderas to look at Alain Delon in Le Cercle Rouge, along with a few other chilly performances. As Ledgard appears so impassive, his turnaround by film's end might be termed a surprise, if it wasn't also a function of his obsessiveness, and the reason for Vera’s blankness is shrewdly and gradually revealed -- like us, she has no idea who she really is. At the same time, the film seems incurious about Marilla and her resigned complicity in her son's rather ruthless schemes. "I’ve got insanity in my entrails," she moans, though it's not clear what this means to her.

For all its narrative cleverness and fastidious references, The Skin I Live In does yield a remarkably straightforward theme, concerning a man’s inability to love. Ledgard is spurred on to cruelty and desperation by perceived slights against him from the women he cares most about, namely, his wife and daughter (both seen in flashbacks). His response is not love, but intense jealousy, protectiveness, and overbearing possessiveness that lead him, at least partially, to destroying them. Borne out of the doctor's sadomasochistic conception of revenge, Vera is, in a way, an attempt to create his ideal, perfect woman. It is only when he finally develops compassion and even feel passion for his creation that he meets his downfall. This gives the movie a tragic edge, one that is also horrific.

If it's difficult to become emotionally invested in The Skin I Live In, it is compellingly performed and certainly unusual. It also revisits Almodóvar’s complex, never quite resolved ideas about gender and power. For these reasons, as much as for its shocking plot turn, it lingers in the mind.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.