Pedro Almodóvar's The Skin I Live In is a story of bewildering moral and psychological complexity. Characters do wrong, but usually in mitigating circumstances or from understandable motives. Only one character seems genuinely wicked, but he only plays an incidental part in the story. Otherwise, the evils visited on the protagonists often seem undeserved, and yet they are mixed in with the accomplishment of some good. The result is a story that can only be seen overall as a tragedy, with an ambiguous, curious, and open ending.
The movie is based on a short French novel, Mygale, by Thierry Jonquet [1995, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith, City Lights Books, 2005]; but Almodóvar has extensively rewritten the story, significantly altering the nature and meaning of the characters and events. It is definitely an Almodóvar movie, with Jonquet reduced to providing a certain structural inspiration. The points where the stories contrast are noteworthy.
As the movie begins, we see Toledo, a country estate (El Cigarral, evidently from cigarra, "cicada," whose sound we actually hear in the background), and then pass through a window with bars and security screen glass to meet a young woman, whom we later learn is Vera (Elena Anaya), doing yoga in an unusual body stocking. She tends to some sculpture and then receives breakfast and some supplies through a dumbwaiter. She appears to be a prisoner and is under surveillance from the kitchen. The cook or housekeeper, Marilia (Marisa Paredes), will not supply her with needle, thread, or scissors.
The scene shifts to a talk by Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas). He is a plastic surgeon who says he has done three of the nine face transplants that have been performed in the world. So we gather that he is a world class plastic surgeon. On his way home, he receives a packaged unit of blood in the parking garage, which seems more like a transaction in a spy movie than the regular actions of an esteemed doctor. Something not entirely above board is going on.
Arrivng home, Ledgard takes the blood and does some work in a lab on his property. Retiring to his bedroom, he turns on a video screen and sees from the rear the reclining naked form of the woman we have met earlier. He fetches a box and takes it next door, where the women is held. He has brought some opium. However, we see with him that the woman has scratched her chest, slit a wrist, and is unconscious. Ledgard carries her to an operating theater that is evidently part of the facilities we have seen earlier. Earlier in the day, she had not seemed unhappy; but now she is not pleased to have been revived, and Ledgard is not very responsive to her questions about his intentions. She is distressed. He is displeased with the response of her skin.
We learn from another talk by Ledgard that he has been working on an artificial skin that would keep people safe from burns, or even insect bites. He calls this "Gal," which was the name of his wife, who died from burns. Unfortunately, he must admit to his colleagues that the skin is genetically modified, with DNA from pigs, and this is prohibited by medical ethics. He says that he will cease the research. But we see that he will not stop and in fact has already been conducting human experimentation, on the woman he holds prisoner. He provides her with more skin grafts, apparently to ameliorate the deficiencies he discerned earlier.
From his bedroom, Ledgard sees her comfortably reading in her body stocking. He visits with opium again. He admits that he has done everything with her he can. She has the "best skin in the world." But she presses him about what is to become of her. He is discomfited, especially when she suggests they simply live together. He attempts to leave and is flustered when, with some affectionate and seductive touching, she inhibits his departure. Back in his bedroom, he is tranfixed by the enlarged image of her face on his screen. She is beautiful, and her lips part.
Marilia also asks Ledgard what he is to do with Vera. He will need to kill her or keep her forever. But he obviously is uncomfortable addressing this dilemma. Marilia thinks she will kill herself, but Ledgard forcefully denies this.
So exactly what is going on here? We don't know. Why is the woman a prisoner? How did she become the test subject for his artificial skin? We don't know. Ledgard's attitude, however, will shortly be altered by events.
The criminal son of Marilia shows up. This is Zeca (Roberto Álamo), who has just robbed a jewelry store and is on the run. Because it is Mardi Gras, he can for the moment circulate in a tiger costume without comment. He thinks Marilia can put him up and Ledgard can change his face. But then he sees Vera and seems to recognize her. Tying up Marilia, he finds Vera and rapes her. He says that he had left her "burning like a torch," and we don't know what this is about; but Vera plays along that she is the person he thinks she is.
Ledgard returns home, comes into the kitchen, and sees the bound Marilia and, through the monitors, Zeca raping Vera. He enters Vera's room with a gun and kills Zeca. After he leaves to dispose of Zeca's body, Marilia confides to Vera that Ledgard and Zeca were actually brothers, half-brothers. She bore the Zeca from a fellow servant, but Robert was the son of Mr. Ledgard, the owner of the estate, whose own wife was sterile. But Robert was raised as their son, and he still does not know he is actually Marilia's. In fact, he will never know this. Marilia says that both boys were "born insane." The insanity comes from her.
Burning the bloody bedclothes outside, Marilia continues to talk to Vera, who sits in her bodystocking but also wearing a loose sweater, the first time we see her at ease and unrestrained outside the house. Zeca thought he knew Vera because Ledgard has made her look like his wife, Gal. Gal had run off with Zeca twelve years earlier, but they were immediately involved in a car crash. Zeca ran away, leaving Gal, as he has told Vera, burning in the car. Ledgard rescued Gal and saved her life. But when Gal is well enough, and sees herself covered with the scars from her burns, she jumps out the window and dies at the feet of their daughter, Norma (Blanca Suárez, as an adult). Marilia says that some years later, Norma would kill herself in the same way.
Ledgard returns home, and he and Vera go to bed together. Vera, just have enduring a rape, and presumably with any medical necessities tended to by Ledgard, begs off sex for the evening. The two fall asleep. Ledgard begins to dream...
Six years earlier, he is at a wedding with Norma at another country estate. Norma has been receiving psychiatric care (the insanity in the family brought out by the trauma of Gal's death), but she seems to be doing alright. However, Ledgard looses track of her and goes looking. Couples are having sex in the garden. A motorbike passes Ledgard, who finds Norma nearby, unconscious. She awakens in his arms, screaming. In the present, Ledgard wakes up, disturbed, cuddles up to Vera, and goes back to sleep.
We shift to Vera, who begins having her own dream, or perhaps now it is a proper flashback, with events extraneous to the new point of view. We are six years in the past again, with a young man, Vicente (Jan Cornet), who works in his mother's dress shop. He has teasing banter with the lesbian salesgirl Cristina (Bárbara Lennie). That night, he goes to a wedding. He meets Norma. They go out into the garden. Norma kicks off her shoes and complains about wearing clothes. They begin making out on the ground, but suddenly Norma starts screaming. There is a sort of Bride of Frankenstein quality about her. Vicente tries to quiet her and then slaps her, which knocks her out. He tidies her clothes and leaves.
A few days later, Vicente is run off the road one night by a van. The van driver shoots him with a tranquilizer gun, and he passes out. He awakens in a basement, chained to the rock wall, in his underwear, with only a tub of water to drink. Some time passes. He is thirsty and hungry. But then Ledgard pays more attention to him, rinses him off, lengthens the chains, and provides some food. Meanwhile, Norma has lost her mind and is afraid of all men. Then she kills herself. Ledgard shaves Vicente and then administers an anesthetic.
Some medical staff arrive at the Ledgard estate. Vicente is prepped in the operating theater. Awaking from the operation, he asks Ledgard what has happened. A vaginoplasty. Ledgard has castrated him and created a vagina. Vicente now is installed in the room he will occupy for years. After the humiliating routine of post-operative treatment, Vicente asks why Ledgard has done this. With a vehemence that Ledgard rarely displays otherwise, he explains about the rape of his daughter. Vicente, who had been heavily drugged up at the time, can barely remember what happened. He's not sure he did rape Norma, who, of course, seemed willing enough at first. Vicente had not picked up that the drugs she said she was taking were all psychiatric medications, while she really didn't understand what he meant when he said he was "high." Too late now.
Ledgard proceeds with the rest of the surgery necessary for a sex change. We now see Vicente in the iconic mask that he wears while the facial surgery heals (without showing us the swelling and bruising that actually accompany such procedures). He tries to escape and even cuts his own throat. Ledgard saves him.
The day arrives to remove the mask. Vicente becomes Vera ("true"). Now a woman for most practical purposes, Vera nevertheless tears up the dresses that have been left for her. And she rejects the makeup articles and instructions that have been sent up the dumbwaiter, except for eyebrow pencils that she uses to begin writing on the walls. Watching yoga instruction on television, and supplied with yoga books, she begins this practice. Her hair grows out. Presumably, Ledgard is now working on her skin for his "Gal" project more than for her further feminization.
We return to the present. Vera brings Ledgard breakfast. Marilia doesn't trust her. Ledgard agrees with Vera that she is free, while she says she will stay with him. Marilia takes her shopping. Ledgard's colleague Fulgencio (Eduard Fernández) meanwhile arrives to blackmail Ledgard -- who is working on his bonsai trees, certainly an appropriate hobby for a plastic surgeon, and symbolic of the degree to which Ledgard has twisted and reworked the body of Vera. Fulgencio recognizes Vicente from a newspaper story on missing persons. Vera arrives, admits who she is, and denies that she was ever kidnapped. She has "always been a woman." That evening, still finding sex uncomfortable, Vera says that she has left her lubrication downstairs. Retrieving it, she also brings back a gun. She tells Ledgard she is going to kill him, and she does. She then kills Marilia, who comes to investigate. Marilia's fears are confirmed; and the entire Ledgard family, genetically mostly that of Marilia, has now been annihilated.
Returning to the dress shop of Vicente's mother (Susi Sánchez), Vera reveals who she is to Cristina. The last line of the movie is Vera saying "I am Vicente" to his mother -- a whispered Soy Vicente, in the economy of expression possible here in Spanish [note]. We do not see her reaction.
The key to understanding The Skin I Live In is the title. It is a first person assertion (habito). The speaker can only be Vicente/Vera. Thus, we should gather than the movie is ultimately about Vicente/Vera. The assertion also implies that the "I" is distinct from the skin. Vicente lives in the skin of Vera but is not her. As noted, the last line of the movie is "I am Vicente." Vicente has retained his identity despite his long transformation and experience with Ledgard.
This is not what happens in Mygale. In that story Vincent Moreau has become Eve, at the hands of Dr. Richard Lafargue, for the same reasons that Vicente was made into Vera -- he had raped Lafargue's daughter, who then lost her mind. In the end, however, when Eve has the same chance to shoot and kill Lafargue, now by chance rather than design, she doesn't. She doesn't see that she has a life to go back to as she is; and so she stays with him. She never had the difficulty Vera did in picking up, for instance, the use of makeup.
We get this outcome despite the fact Dr. Lafargue was far more cruel to Eve than Ledgard ever was to Vicente or Vera. When Eve is sufficiently transformed, Lafargue takes her out and prostitutes her. He does this again and again and laughs, again and again, at her degradation. Ledgard never laughed at Vicente/Vera and never inflicted gratuitous cruelties. He seems to treat her with a medical detachment and is mildly solicitous, even caring. Of course, much more is going on in The Skin I Live In than in Migale. Ledgard has made Vera in the image of his wife; and he carries out the treatment, to restore and perfect her skin, that Gal's suicide prevented him from carrying out on her. This process is tailor-made for Ledgard to eventually fall in love with Vera, as he is warned by Marilia, and as indeed he does. Although Lafargue eventually looses the will for his cruelty, and undertakes to free Eve, he does not have nearly the reasons that Ledgard does to be attracted to his creation, and apparently is not in the same way. He never calls Eve "my Love" the way Ledgard does Vera.
My Cassell's French dictionary defines mygale as a "trap-door spider." This is the nickname that Eve gives to Lafargue. The trap-door spider pops up and drags its prey down into its burrow. There is an element of The Collector [1963 novel, by John Fowles; 1965 movie] about Lafargue and Ledgard. However, the theme of The Skin I Live In is much more along the lines of Pygmalion than The Collector. Indeed, Ledgard is much more the genuine sculptor, like the mythic Pygmalion himself, than the Henry Higgins of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion . Eliza Doolittle ends up talking and acting very differently, but she does not become a person of another sex who cannot even be recognized by her mother. Shaw's Doolittle (like Vera) leaves Higgins, as usually Pygmalion's Galatea (like Eve) did not.
The danger for Ledgard is perhaps an occupation hazzard. He sees the surface, the skin. Once Vera is created, Vicente has ceased to exist and is not a presence, let alone a threat. Because of his approach to things, Ledgard himself has a certain coldness and lack of inner life. Indeed, an unasked and unanswered question in the movie is why Gal would have run off with a thug like Zeca. But we may have the answer. Ledgard's detachment can well have made for a marriage without the kind of affection, attention, and understanding that Gal, or any emotionally alive person, might have expected. His life consisted of activities like surgery, or making his artificial skin, all setting a premium on what he can see and manipulate. Zeca represented a passion and hunger that was appealing to Gal, despite his brutality.
This meaning of the skin may solve another question about the movie. After so much being made about the burn and insect proof miracle skin, it plays no role in the resolution of the story. From most movies, we expect a payoff. Vera should emerge unscathed from the flames, or the bugs. But nothing of the sort happens -- at least in a literal sense. Vicente, after a fashion, does emerge from the flames, by in the end asserting his identity. The skin thus can literally be a medical miracle, but narratively it is a more subtle barrier, which traps Vicente within.
Until Vera takes the gun and kisses the picture of Vicente in the newspaper, we have no certain clue that she will turn on Ledgard. Previously, she seemed sufficiently enthusiastic that her genuinely falling in love and accepting her life was altogether believable. As it is, the swift reversal is jarring. But it is understandable, after all, that Vicente's sense of himself should have survived and that he wanted his own freedom from, if not revenge on, Ledgard. But we can also ask, is he then better off at the end? Ledgard was guilty of kidnapping, false imprisonment, all sorts of mayhem and mutilation, and unethical medical experimentation. Nevertheless, he gave to Vicente, previously an unpreposessing youth and a bit of a fuck-up, a gloriously perfect new body. Ledgard, for all his madness and coldness, was actually an artist and a genius of a high order; and the medical experimentation was, of all things, successful. Vera is a miracle of art and science. What in the world is Vicente going to do with this?
Yet the inner Vicente himself must have changed. Between the yoga, the sculpting, and the reading, let alone the transformation of his body, over six years, he cannot possibly be the same young fool who thoughtlessly raped Norma. The story ends abruptedly just as he/she is going to be faced with determining where life is going to go next. Vicente asks Cristina for help, but what kind of help will that be? With the police, after Vera has killed Ledgard and Marilia? Or is this asking for help in general, with what life is going to be like, even though Cristina cannot know what Vicente has been through or has become? We do not know, as certainly at this point Vicente/Vera does not know. An indication that even Almodóvar does not know is the title of the soundtrack piece that runs over the end credits, La indentidad inacessible, "Inaccessible Identity." This must have been a matter of discussion between Almodóvar and the composer, Alberto Iglesias. Is the identity "inacessible" to us? to them? to Ledgard? or perhaps even to Vera herself?
So who is the villain in this story? Vicente has destroyed, without quite realizing it, the life of Norma. This makes Ledgard's revenge understandable, even sympathic, despite the extremes of its application, which will not withstand much examination in court. Does Vicente really deserve to have happen to him what does? I don't think so. He has fallen into the hands of a madman. Yet there is purpose to Ledgard's madness; and the cruelty of Vicente's castration curiously begins to look like a kind of gift by the end. Whether it is or not may depend on whether we ourselves think that it would be better to be a man and be Vicente or a woman and be Vera. Without a pretty strong dose of misogyny, it is hard to see how Vicente was any bargain in comparison to Vera, apart from genuine reproductive capacity. Is being made into a woman itself degrading? With Lafargue we might wonder; but past the initial explanation, Ledgard seems to treat Vicente and then Vera as he might a proper transsexual, with sympathy for the process and conscientious dedication to the most pleasing result.
Vicente also ends up ultimately destroying all that remains of the family of Marilia, including her. Do they all really deserve that? Are Marilia and Ledgard the villains, deserving of this fate? Having begun with revenge, does Ledgard continue, like Lafargue, on a course of purely of vengeance? Well, no. His art, his genius, and his madness produce something wonderful, even if he had no right to visit such a wonder on Vicente.
Some of the comment about The Skin I Live In is that it is about the "empowerment of women," presumably because Vera rises up against the oppression of Ledgard. However, Vera is not a woman; and Vicente kills Ledgard not because he is a woman, but because he isn't. Eve declines to kill Lafargue precisely because the old Vincent is gone and there is nothing to go back to. The Vera who seems to fall in love with Ledgard is perfectly believable, if Vicente had not actually still been lurking under the surface. The conclusion is therefore the "empowerment" of Vicente, but then we are also left with the perplexity of what Vicente, in the body of Vera, is going to do with that power.
The tragedy of The Skin I Live In is the spiral of madness and misadventure that carries down Gal, Norma, Zeca, Robert, Marilia, and, indeed, Vicente. But Vicente is now trapped in the body of Vera. Vera, with her yoga and sculpting, let alone her beauty, may be someone he should have accepted and become. He will not easily be rid of her.
It is a strange story. Almodóvar gives us a lot to think about in terms of identity, gender, bondage (an old Almodóvar interest), revenge, justice, madness, and even love. And truly, Elena Anaya is a luminous beauty, giving the movie a visual power that contributes to the ambivalent gift and wonder that Vera has become. Robert Ledgard has no hope of resisting her, his own Galatea, as he is warned by Marilia, who ironically does not even know that Vera had been a man.
We know from Almodóvar's other movies that he is interested in the theme of mothers. The role of mothers in The Skin I Live In is significantly larger and more important than in Mygale. We also have a curious moment near the beginning of the film when Ledgard drives by a large MATERNIDAD sign. A maternity hospital would not seem to be the place where Ledgard would be doing face transplants on burn victims, so we might expect that this is the maternity wing of his hospital, or an adjacent maternity hospital. Either way, it is curious that the sign should be so prominently featured, as though we are being told to pay attention to the mothers. Indeed we should. Marilia is the first person to speak in the movie; and the tragic circumstances of her own motherhood, with one son a criminal and the other unaware he is her son, looks like the source of a cascade of tragedy that continues all down the years of the story, until she herself is the last alive, and the last to die. We hear nothing about the mother of Lafargue in Mygale. On the other hand, the Vicente of the movie has an unusually strong connection to his mother, working as we meet him in his mother's dress shop. This is not for the typical macho young man; and Cristina implies that he belongs in a dress more than she does. At the end of the movie, Vicente/Vera goes straight back to the mother. Otherwise, what the mother herself does is not that different in the movie as in Mygale. She goes to the police, in the book every month, to prod them into further investigation. Yet the Vincent of Mygale does not seem to worry about his mother at all. She is part of a life that Eve leaves behind, and we have no hint that his mother holds any particular meaning for him/her. With Vicente, however, we wonder if his mother represents a lifeline that helps keep his identity in existence. Yet it is not clear what his mother can do for Vicente/Vera. We do not even see her reaction when Vicente announces himself to her at the end. Vincent did not even consider his mother on reflecting that he had nothing to go back to. Vicente goes straight home to mother, despite the lack of any clue about what she otherwise means to him or can do for him.
The casting of Elena Anaya is interesting. In the Room in Rome , she plays a boyish young lesbian. We might wonder if this in itself would suggest her suitability for a role where she had in fact been a boy. Otherwise, Anaya is not as young as we might think. When The Skin I Live In was being made, she would have been 35 or 36 in age. There are moments in the film when we might see her as other than a young woman; but given her otherwise taut and youthful form, this might add to the sense that she is not indeed a young woman, but a man after extensive surgery. Personally, I don't think of a woman as truly beautiful unless she looks better in her 30's, or even 40's, than she did in her 20's. My own wife and I met when we were both 38. In these terms, Elena Anaya has nothing to worry about; and I think that comparing her with her appearance in Sex and Lucía , ten years earlier, shows that her looks have impressively matured in beauty, elegance, and dignity. Her appearance in The Skin I Live In is thus a showcase of beauty, and close-ups, that many actresses might long for -- unless they are frightened off by the premise of the character having been a man.
We get more (gory) details of the sex change in Mygale than in the movie. To torment him, Lafargue shows Vincent a film about the procedure. We do learn from this that, despite his cruelty, Lafargue has used the state-of-the-art technique, which preserves the tissues of the penis in order to create a sexually sensitive vagina and clitoris. Has Ledgard done this also? We don't know; but given the attitude of professionalism we otherwise see in him, we probably may assume so. Abelard should have had it so good. However, in one area, which is essential for the story, there is a medical question. Vaginoplasty cannot create an organ that self-lubricates like a natural vagina. Unless medical science has made advances that I have missed, transsexuals need artificial lubrication. This would be an issue with the procedure that Ledgard recommends for keeping Vicente's new vagina from closing up, the insertion of progressively larger dildoes. This could only properly be done with lubrication. And Vera's dryness is something that Zeca might notice -- even as it would have been one of the causes of his hurting her during intercourse. Thus, at the end of the movie, it seems unlikely that lubrication for Vera would be something only recently purchased and not closer to hand. Of course, close or not, Vera's design can have been to use its arranged absence as an excuse.
Perhaps the principal challenge of a believable, if not aesthetically pleasing, male-to-female sex change is the skeleton. For all that a good plastic surgeon can do for any soft tissues, or to pare away bone from the skull, the long bones, hands, feet, and rib cage are structures whose proper reduction is going to be a much more difficult, if not impossible, proposition. The best candidates for an optimum cosmetic effect, therefore, will be men whose frame is already short and slight. This is the way actor Jan Cornet, as Vicente, looks. He and Elena Anaya seem to be of the same height and comparable build, although, of course, we cannot rule out the sort of Hollywood trickery that has long disguised the height or build of actors whose roles or imagine have called for a different look. We might be particularly suspicious that the heads and faces of Vicente and Vera seem to be of comparable size -- an in-camera adjustment that needs no special technology to accomplish. Nevertheless, Vicente's short stature, in relation, for instance, to Norma, looks genuine. Almodóvar thus seems to have been very conscious of this issue. Elena Anaya herself is not very tall, which is to good effect up against Antonio Banderas, who is only 5' 8.5".
At the moment of truth, when Vera announces she will kill Ledgard, we get no question from him and no explanation from her why she will do this. There can be significant differences in motive. Is this revenge for what he did to Vicente, or just what seems necessary for escape? Does Vera really hate Ledgard? Was all the affection she showed recently just a lie and a deception to put him off guard? Perhaps Ledgard doesn't ask because he thinks the answer is obvious, but then he is the sort of person who has difficulty with the interior life of others. He may not know how to ask about Vera's motives any more than he was earlier able to formulate or discuss his own. But why doesn't Vera spew some self-justification or recrimination at him? After all, Ledgard told Vicente why he was doing what he was doing. Doesn't Vera owe Ledgard the same courtesy? Indeed, one thing about Ledgard is that he does not seem to have ever been dishonest or deceitful with Vicente or Vera. Having deceived and been dishonest with him in order to gain, justifiably, her freedom, the least that Vera can do is be honest now. At the denouement of most other movies, where hidden designs and resentments are revealed, we get to hear about them in some detail. But no monologuing from Vera.
This suggests that her motives and feelings may actually be mixed, and she is no more able to articulate them than earlier Ledgard had been able to articulate his. Did Vicente himself have much of an interior life? It doesn't look like it. If Vera has developed an interior life, from her reading, writing, yoga, etc., it may have been as a function of Vera, perhaps leaving the hidden inner Vicente no more developed than before. The antipathy or revenge of Vicente therefore cannot be easily expressed; and Vicente/Vera ironically ends up just as deficient in self-awareness as Ledgard. This may become disturbing on reflection. The Ledgard insanity has become a folie à deux in which the deficiencies of both produce a tragic result.
When Vera first suggests to Ledgard that they live together like ordinary people (todo el mundo), we come to conclude that this is likely already a deception. If so, she has actually skipped over what would have been both a reasonable and an honest approach. That would have been to ask, "Have you punished me enough?" After all, although much of what Ledgard has done is curious or inexplicable -- that he has turned Vicente into a beautiful and also flame-resistant woman -- the premise of the whole business is still that it is an act of retribution for the rape of Norma. Even the use of Vera as a medical guinea pig could be seen as part of the punishment. The first part of the conversation that Vera initiates with Ledgard, about whether anything more is to be done to her, to which we learn that she is "finished" (terminada), should lead logically to the question about Ledgard's intentions, when he originally told Vicente, after the vaginoplasty, that they were not finished. If Vera is "finished" now, does she really deserve more imprisonment? Is he now keeping her only for the pleasure of watching her, as he does, and as "toy," as she said earlier? These uses are not consistent with the motive of retribution. And if Vera wants an honest point of leverage with him, before beginning a dishonest seduction, the moral ground of her imprisonment, regardless of whatever else she has been used for, is the sensitive point.
Ledgard has never shown the slightest desire to kill Vera; and we know from his conversations with Marilia that he has no such intention. Indeed, he now admires her as a "survivor." Perhaps Vera cannot know that, but there is no reason not for her to be aware that, in his own peculiar and paradoxical way, he has been solicitous of her well being. He as saved her life twice (that we know of) and, unlike Dr. Lafargue, has never struck her or otherwise inflicted pain or injury (apart from the uncomfortable initial chaining up and then castration) out of anger or cruelty. As the creation of a mad scientist, Vera has come out rather better from it than Edward Scissorhands, let alone Frankenstein. All this means that there is something in Ledgard for a moral appeal to work on. And since it is obvious, especially after Marilia's explanations, that he is bound to fall in love with her, this provides perhaps an even stronger foundation for an approach that is earnest and sincere without being seductive. All this, however, may simply be beyond the capacity of the inner Vicente.
On their last morning together, Ledgard refers to a conversation that we have not seen. The night before he told her that she was free, but she also promised to stay with him. This would have been a good occasion, since she has not done it earlier, to ask, not only "Have you punished me enough?" but also, "Is it enough that I have now been raped?" or even, "I know that Norma killed herself, but you know that I've tried to kill myself also -- will I finally atone if I succeed?" But, again, no such questions seem to have been asked. On the other hand, from what did happen in that conversation, if Vera thinks of the new arrangement only as a quid pro quo, in which her freedom is effectively negated by her promise to stay, a promise which implicitly may have been made under duress, she is morally justified in lying to him.
The corresponding moment looks very different in Mygale. When Lafargue's hatred and anger collapse against Eve, he is broken, feels he has nothing left to live for, and tells Eve:
Are you feeling better? It's all over. I mean, it's finished -- you can leave. It'll take care of the paperwork, your new identity. That's the usual thing. You understand? You'll go to the police, tell them everything... [p.117]
Now, in the situation with Ledgard, it is never stated, but we are left to assume, that Ledgard, and certainly Marilia, cannot contemplate releasing Vera without fearing the likelihood of her (or, well, of Vincente's mother) going to the police and ruining Ledgard's career and life. Lafargue simply doesn't care. All he was living for was to punish and humiliate Eve, whom he was even regularly taking to see his daughter -- "Viviane" in the book, who has not committed suicide but is still in the mental hospital, and whose condition is so distrubed that Lafargue is advised, like Ledgard, not to visit her again. When Lafargue loses his hatred, he really loses the will to live, and it doesn't matter what Eve gets the police to do to him. It is Eve who decides that he will go on, with her, supplying the will that he has lost.
Our Ledgard, on the other hand, seems to have lost his anger and hatred long before, replaced by no less than love. We do not see this turnabout ever discussed, despite the clarity with which the transformation of Lafargue is described in the book. It may mean that Ledgard does care about the police, but it also does mean that such a fear should be counterbalanced by the moral presumptions of care and regard that go with love. If he really loves Vera, he will let her go. After the revolution occasioned by the incident with Zeca, Ledgard should have told Vera (1) she is free, (2) she should go home, (3) she should go to the police if she likes, but (4) if she really wants to be with him, she can skip #3 and come back. Unless, Vicente just wants to kill Ledgard out of his own desire for vengeance, which, after all, we never see voiced, this would all make Vera a bona fide free agent, who can make her choice without any cloud of duress. That he does not lay out the situation in this way we can ascribe to his inability to think through the circumstances and expectations of what he is doing, and the inability of Vera to solicit such an examination.
That Vera uses seduction and deception to finally kill Ledgard, however logical in the circumstances, nevertheless looks like a traditional stereotype of female faithlessness. Since men are physically stronger than women, as certainly Vera has been at the physical mercy of Ledgard, the Feminist (or perhaps Nietzschean) take is that women must fall back on indirect means to exert power, by strategem, manipulation, "wiles," deception, and seduction. This may be an odd stereotype to apply in the case of Vera, who is not actually a woman, but it may be well taken as a function of the unequal "power" relationship between Vera and Ledgard, i.e. that Vicente uses the only reasonable strategy in the circumstances. As I have noted, however, this was by no means the only possible strategy, and it doesn't even seem like the most obvious, promising, or upright one. Honesty might have worked as well and can have been tried without precluding the later use of the other.
We must also reflect that had Ledgard and Vera held the honest coversation that in fact never happened, Ledgard has in his favor a major feature of the movie: If Vera goes to the police and ruins Ledgard, then all his successful research on the artificial skin, "Gal," will be for nought. Although we already know that the research cannot be published and used in the ordinary way, for the time being, we can also conclude from the practices we have been observing and hearing about in his profession, where his colleague Fulgencio seems to be a bit of a gangster, that Ledgard could very easily have used his results to help burn victims, very quietly, at his El Cigarral facilities. Vera would need to ask herself whether she wants to deny to burn victims, like Gal, whose story she now knows in detail, the succor of the research whose success is all too obvious to Vera, from the presence of the very "skin I live in." This is another aspect of the significance of Vera's choices that is never expressed or explored. As it happens, of course, with Ledgard gone, the research will all be for nought; and Vera is walking around with a one-of-a-kind miracle skin.
But there is a third possible action in the circumstances, which we do not see, and that involves another traditional female stereotype: Tears. A woman in distress and despair might be expected to cry. While weeping is often associated with the weakness of women, we have the striking assertion of Schopenhauer:
...weeping is always regarded as a sign of a certain degree of goodness of character, and it disarms anger. This is because it is felt that whoever is still able to weep must also necessarily be capable of affection, i.e., of sympathy towards others... [The World as Will and Representation, Volume I, §67, pp.377-378, Dover Publications, 1966, E.F.J. Payne translation]
We do not see either Ledgard or Vera weep; but while it emerges that Ledgard does obviously develop affection for Vera, we have no evidence that Vera has had any sympathy for him, for Marilia (who confides secrets to her, despite the suspicions that we know she harbors), or even for Norma, whose life, we must always remember, Vicente destroyed. The absence of tears is highlighted in one dramatic moment: Cristina cries.
|Lacrimosa dies illa,
Qua resurget ex favilla
Judicandus homo reus.
Huic ergo parce, Deus:
|Tearful that day,
As from the ashes returns
Accused man to be judged.
Therefore God spare him:
Even if Vera were to make herself weep as a deceptive strategem, instead of using seduction, this would still be morally superior to what she does. This is because the seductive strategy aims at killing Ledgard, which he may not deserve, while tears, to soften his heart and move him to free her out of compassion, accomplish something that morally should happen anyway. There is a vanishingly small moral difference between Vera weeping deceptively and Vera weeping genuinely because (1) it would be right and natural for her to weep in the circumstances in any case, and (2) if this does no more than awaken Ledgard's heart to justice and compassion, to the accomplishment of which any strategy, however deceptive, would be justified, then it is not simply justified but admirable. If Vera's tears move him to release her, she has not wronged him. By awakening his love for her, however, in order to kill him, she has wronged him -- in a way whose positive cruelty, using love as a trap for murder, sounds more like Lafargue at his worst than like other characters in these stories.
In The Tempest, Prospero says about those who have wronged him, "They, being penitent,/ The sole drift of my purpose doth extend/ Not a frown further" [Act 5, Scene 1:27-30]. Was Vicente ever penitent about Norma? We do not see any clear evidence of it. Has the need for Vicente's penitence somehow been erased by the disproportionate nature of Ledgard's vengeance? Perhaps. Yet Lafargue himself repented of what he had done, and he undertook to accept the consequences, regardless of the practical cost to himself. In Ledgard, whose feelings have shifted from hatred to love, and who was never as cruel as Lafargue, we expect a will to make amends, but this is never put to the test, never expressed by Ledgard nor solicited by Vera. This leaves the final issue of the movie morally indeterminate.
Having seen so much of Vera, our sympathy is aroused in great measure because of her beauty, delicacy, and despair. Yet her beauty and delicacy are actually artifacts of Ledgard's ministrations (not to mention of brilliant cinema), and the despair could as easily belong to one who is being justly punished for a crime. What is the judgment to be about Vicente's "degree of goodness of character"? Is Vera a hero at the end of the movie, or has Vicente wronged Ledgard even as he wronged Norma? I believe that what we need to know about both Ledgard and Vera to answer this question is information that remains hidden. If the impression of the movie is thus ambiguous, I wonder if this effect was in fact the intention of Almodóvar.
In the Apology, Socrates, who is publicly questioning people about their wisdom, turns to an examination of the poets. Since the poems of the great poets seemed to exhibit great wisdom, Socrates was sanguine about examining the authors. Unfortunately, as he says, "Almost all the bystanders might have explained the poems better than their authors could." He concluded that the poets wrote by "nature [i.e. by their talent] and by inspiration, like seers and prophets who also say many fine things without knowing what they say." It is now a commonplace of literary "post-modernism" and deconstruction that the intentions of an author are inaccessible. We can only know our own response. However, this introduces a serious paradox. Jacques Derrida may have his own interpretation of a text, but we can know his intentions or interpretation no better than he can know those of the original author. So, in a response to a critique from philosopher John Searle, Derrida protested that he had been "misunderstood" -- after a whole philosophy arguing that the project of "understanding" an author is meaningless. Thus, the proper point is not that we cannot know the intentions of an author, but that an author may not know the excellent meaning he has achieved in his own work -- even as we often find that authors and artists don't understand how bad their work is.
This should be kept in mind in examining a statement of Pedro Almodóvar about his own movie. This is from a signed note that accompanies the movie soundtrack CD [Lakeshore Records, 2011]:
In her six years of enforced reclusion, Vera has lost, among other things, the most extensive member of the human body, her own skin. Literally, she has shed her skin along the way.
Now, what I find interesting about this is that if we were to ask Vicente/Vera what he/she has lost, I doubt that "my skin" would be the first response. We see Vicente in horror and misery examining the loss of his genitals, but we never see any such contemplation or response to Vera's new skin. What is significant about Vera's new skin is that it goes along with Vera's new sex. Cristina is not going to look at Vera and think, "What happened to your skin?" She is going to think, "How can this woman be Vicente?" The whole identity, as well as the name, of "Vera," has been created and imposed by Ledgard. The skin is symbolic of how Vicente is trapped and of what Vera is, but it is incidental to the foundational fact of Vicente's castration and sexual transformation.
Almodóvar goes on:
The skin is the frontier that separates us from others... Many times it reflects the state of the soul, but the skin isn't the soul. Although Vera has changed skin, she hasn't lost her identity. (Identity and its invulnerability is another of the film's themes).
Indeed, but Almodóvar has passed over the identity of Vera as Vicente. "Vera" did not have an identity to lose. Vicente did. If there is a durable identity involved, it is a confusion to call it "Vera" rather than "Vicente."
This is just one of the many losses that place Vera on the verge of death... But she is a born survivor and, after many difficulties, she decides that "she has to learn to live within the skin that she lives in," even if it is a skin imposed by Dr. Robert. Once she has accepted her second skin, Vera takes the second most important decision in order to survive: she'll learn to wait.
Now, although Almodóvar provides us with a quote here, nothing like this is found in the movie. We have no hint that Vicente has "accepted" Vera's skin. Nor do we have an identifiable moment were Vera decides to "wait." Wait for what? Almodóvar says that Zeca arrives and, "This incident breaks the impasse in which the three residents of 'El Cigaral' have been living." If Vera has been waiting for an opportunity to kill Ledgard and escape, then it does break the impasse. However, Almodóvar gives the impression that Vera has been doing nothing but waiting for such an opportunity.
That is not true. Vera has already confronted Ledgard with the proposition that, if the work on her is "finished," then it is time for her ultimate fate to be determined; and she suggests that what they do is live together like an ordinary couple. Even if the latter is a deception, not only does the former action mark a key phase in their relationship, but the latter itself sets up the terms of how the "incident" is going to resolve it. Zeca's rape of Vera prompts a change in Ledgard's heart, in which he understands his love for her, and it moves him to accept Vera's proposal. That the proposal was insincere and Ledgard's love unwelcome reveals, not that Vera has accepted the identity, the "skin," that Ledgard has imposed on her, but that Vicente is still there to reject it.
The difference between the set-up and the resolution of Vera's status also has its parallel in Mygale. Without any initiative from Eve, Lafargue loses his will to punish her as he watches her being whipped by a customer. Because of this, he will free her. Eve's own will enters into the equation because of the equivalent of Zeca in Mygale -- Vincent's old partner in crime, Alex. This fellow participated in the rape of Viviane, but he got away without being observed by Lafargue. Quite independently, Alex targets Lafargue as a plastic surgeon (for the same reason that Zeca thinks of Ledgard), without realizing what has happened to Vincent. Lafargue turns the tables on Alex and makes him a prisoner as he had Vincent. It is Eve who knows Alex and finally reveals all the connections and coincidences involved. Lafargue kills Alex, but, having lost the will to live, leaves it to Eve whether she will leave and expose or even kill him. Of course, as we have seen, she stays, accepting, as Vera does not, the identity that has been created for her.
Thus, in Almodóvar's description of the movie, I think that he overlooks or misconstrues two key features: (1) the literal "skin" is not what is essential to the question of identity between Vicente and Vera; and (2) Vicente has not "accepted" Vera and has a plan in operation against Ledgard before Zeca ever shows up. Zeca's advent, by enabling Ledgard to understand his own feelings, exposes him to the execution of Vicente's plan -- which is literally his own execution.
An aspect of considering Almodóvar's note is that he may be deliberately suppressing the feature of the movie that Vera is not actually a woman, but is Vicente. He does not give this away, as it is the Hitchcockian fulcrum of the story, where what we think we know is suddenly exposed as wrong (Rebecca and Vertigo are prime exemplars of this). But this severely restrains what sort of full analysis that Almodóvar can give, and the distortions I have noted may be an inevitable consequence. We thus have the complication, not only of the conflict between authorial intent and text, but between full analysis and the requirement of showmanship to conceal parts of the story.
The original music for the soundtrack in The Skin I Live In is brilliant and haunting. It was done by Alberto Iglesias (b.1955), who has done music for several other Almodóvar movies, including All About My Mother (Todo sobre mi madre, 1999), Talk to Her (Hable con ella, 2002), and Bad Education (La mala educación, 2004).
There are a few minor inconsistencies in The Skin I Live In. Zeca tells Marilia that he saw Ledgard on television and followed him home from where he works. Yet Marilia later tells Vera that she had put him up twelve years earlier. Unless the Ledgards were not living at El Cigarral at that time, Zeca would already know where Ledgard lives. Since we are left to understand that the Ledgards have always lived at El Cigarral, which Marilia says she has missed after being away, Zeca's account does not work. In fact, Zeca's explanation is an artifact of Mygale, where the tough Alex knows nothing about Lafargue but does see him on television, as a plastic surgeon, and follows him home.
Marilia tells Vera that Zeca and Ledgard played together as children. But in the very next scene, Marilia tells Vera that she did not raise Zeca, who grew up on the streets. If so, he would not have been playing with the young Ledgard.
When Vera slashes her wrist, Ledgard says that if she had really wanted to kill herself, she would have cut her jugular. This is not, strictly speaking, an inconsistency, but we have already gathered that Vera does not possess bladed tools. We see her cutting cloth with the kind of emery board that is used as a nail file; and Marilia reminds her that her request for needles or scissors cannot be honored. With some effort at sawing, Vera probably can slash her wrist with the emery board, where the artery is near the surface, but the jugular would be out of reach. Thus, the problem here is that both Vera and Ledgard would know that cutting the jugular is not a possibility; and, as we discover later in the movie, Vera has already attempted to cut her throat when a bladed tool could be obtained. If all this is intentional on the part of Almodóvar it could bespeak Ledgard's inability to take Vera's despairing emotions seriously; but then it is unclear why Vera would not remind him that she doesn't have the means to cut her throat again, or that she had already done it before.
Would I rather see a different ending for The Skin I Live In? Well, we already have My Fair Lady  if we want to see a happy ending to a Pygmalion story. It is is better to have a tougher story that gives us more to think about. Even Mygale, where Eve does not kill Lafargue, does not have a conventional happy ending. I wouldn't mind, however, seeing more of the moral and psychological issues brought out. Ledgard has a moment to reproach Vera that, having (albeit indirectly) caused the death of Norma, does she really want to add a face-to-face murder to that? Although we have just heard about Norma in the flash-back narrative of the movie, Norma has not recently been mentioned between them in the objective chronology of the story. It was high time that she was.
It would be a nice improvisational exercise for acting classes to try out alternative conversations for Vera and Ledgard at different points in the story. It would also be a good exercise to continue the scene at the end of the movie. What is the response of Vicente's mother going to be? It could be an awkward conversation for Vera. "Why would someone kidnap you and give you a sex change? Did they rape you, prostitute you, or put you in porno movies?" "Well, no, they didn't do any of that. Although I did get raped by some other guy, who broke in. But then they killed him." "So what were they doing with you all these years?" "Oh, they did medical experiments and gave me a fireproof skin." "What? It looks like a regular skin to me. But they could give you a fireproof skin without a sex change. So, again, why that?" "Well, they thought I had raped this guy's daughter, who then lost her mind and killed herself." "So did you rape his daughter?" "I didn't think I was raping her; but when she started screaming, I knocked her out and ran away." "I see. Someone might really get the wrong idea about that."
Gender Stereotypes and Sexual Archetypes
The Erotic as an Aesthetic Category
Ethics, Critique of Feminism
The DVD for the movie comes with an alternate sound track in French and subtitles in English and French. The English subtitle to Soy Vicente is "I'm Vicente," and the French subtitle is Je suis Vicente, which are both close translations of the Spanish. However, the French sound track does not have Je suis Vicente, but instead C'est moi, Vicente. My feeling is that in English "I'm Vicente" is not the most natural thing for Vera to say. Instead, I think that colloquial English usage would follow the spoken French form, with, "It's me, Vicente."
Now, whenever someone asks in English, "Who's there?" and the answer is "It's me," this always seems a little silly, since it doesn't answer the question, unless someone can be relied upon to recognize the voice. Nevertheless, however silly or non-responsive, this is what people usually say. If we add the name, then it does become responsive and merely stands as an idiom. The sort of person who glories in the idiocy of English speakers probably will not direct the same disdain at French, which uses the identical idiom.
Why French and English should avoid economy in favor of the more elaborate idioms, I do not know. However, I do think it creates a bit more drama and tension. And in drawing out the answer, it would match the reluctance of Vera, which is evident in her pause, to answer the question at all. There is, after all, a certain majesty in Louis XIV saying, not Je suis l'état, but L'état c'est moi.
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