LA PIEL QUE HABITO (THE SKIN I LIVE IN)
The Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, who directed La Piel Que Habito, described it as a ‘horror film without shocks or screams.’ The purpose of the film he added was to entertain. In interviews he has been self-effacing about the film. The plot has twists and surprises, and the film is good to look at, but it is more than an empty headed entertainment. Pedro Almodovar has a good eye and he fills his films with glossy but unusual and sometimes cheesy images. At his best Almodovar redefines cinema into something lush and extravagant but there are also moments when a viewer feels he or she is sharing the imagination of someone who has spent too much of his life either in an art gallery or watching glossy TV adverts. In La Piel Que Habito this weakness becomes a strength.
Doctor Robert Ledgard is a successful and rich plastic surgeon. He lives in a palatial home that contains paintings by the great masters but in certain rooms Almodovar adds cheap furniture in order to have the photogenic image that he needs. In La Piel Que Habito the visual quality of surfaces is important to the message in the film.
La Piel Que Habito pays homage to three iconic films. In the Hitchcock thriller Vertigo James Stewart tried to recreate a dead woman in a lookalike shop assistant. In Eyes Without A Face a doctor kills young women to provide skin for his daughter whose face has been damaged in a car accident. There is also, of course, Frankenstein, which has the dedicated scientist who creates a creature from dead body parts. The twist in La Piel Que Habito is that Doctor Robert Ledgard kidnaps the man who raped his daughter and changes the male rapist into a woman who looks like the raped daughter. All this is revealed in a flashback that is over-extended. The best movie flashbacks have independent life, and the viewer during the flashback forgets the original film. Almodovar achieves this in Hable Con Ella (Talk to Her). In La Piel Que Habito the surprise in the flashback is great but the segment also has a lot of material that is familiar and gloomy. Almodovar is correct. La Piel Que Habito does not have shocks or screams. Neither is the film a thrill a minute drama, and the film does last for 120 minutes.
The rape scene in La Piel Que Habito was not controversial but it should have been. The daughter of Dr Robert Ledgard has mixed alcohol with the medicine she is taking. Vincent, like other young people at the party, is high on drugs and assumes that the daughter of the doctor wants sex. They go outside into the gardens where four other young couples are having sex. These eight people are not discreet. Identity or privacy is not important to them, and we suspect that before they are finished they will have swapped partners. While this happens the entertainer at the party sings about how people are in love with love. The inference is that love is a self-serving abstract and has little to do with the sexual activity that occurs amongst the trees. Almodovar uses this glutinous sexuality to define rape as an assault against ideals rather than our not very discriminating bodies. There is also the suggestion that the ideals of the raped daughter are precious and wrong headed. She does not recover from the rape but the serious damage has been caused by her awakening in the arms of her father who is attempting to console her.
All the sex in La Piel Que Habito is heterosexual and the various attempts can all be interpreted as rape. Zeca, the brother of Robert, who happens to be dressed in a tiger suit, rapes someone whom he mistakes for another woman. Vincent rapes the daughter of Dr Robert Ledgard. After his gender has been changed Vincent has to prepare his new female genitalia. Dr Robert Ledgard has designed just the thing, a selection of smooth shaped dildos. In other words Vincent is obliged to rape himself. Finally Vincent, who has become Vera and whose genitalia is still a little sensitive, has to submit to Dr Robert Ledgard and his sexual desires for a woman created to look like his daughter.
Almodovar is gay, and La Piel Que Habito has a gay subtext. The male lovers in the sexual scenes are not attractive. These heterosexual males represent either destructive violent protest or twisted power. The heterosexual male is an animal that likes to feed from a different fruit. Not everyone will agree but it appears that Almodovar is suggesting that the difference between men and women, their desire to have intimacy with a different physical form, makes lovemaking between opposite genders less aesthetic than sex between the same genders. Heterosexuals are obliged to be obsessed by alternative skin and features. This means that their sexual activity is either defined by hostility to the other or its glorification. It is not, though, empathetic. Because its members have a fixation on a different skin, heterosexual authority is not only hostile to gays it is determined to define the others in their society by their sexual identity, or the skin they live in.
The notions of skin and identity are challenged throughout in La Piel Que Habito. The limitations of human skin are made obvious. Dr Robert Ledgard develops an alternative material that is resistant to fire and insect bites. Fires exist in several images of the film, and the flames become a presence that reminds the audience of the threat of fire and our vulnerability to accidents that can strip away identities rooted in the physical and sexual. At the beginning of the film Vera appears in a figure-hugging bodysuit that resembles skin. This skin or her new obligatory identity is not innate. It is something that can be created. Prior to his kidnap by Dr Robert Ledgard, Vincent works in a dress shop. He sells alternative skins to women who want to improve their appearance and perhaps redefine themselves. There is an irony. Later, when he has been given an alternative sexual identity and a new skin, he tears the dresses that have been left in the room where he is kept prisoner.
We have a choice about our skin and, now we have money, it has become a preoccupation. We can diet or visit the gymnasium. Faces can be redesigned with make up and alternative hairstyles. Replicas of human beings can also be created with alternative surfaces such as cloth or marble. Almodovar, of course, knows that he makes the same mistakes as the rest of us. His sensitive eye means that he is obliged to define objects by their surfaces, which is why we notice the chipboard wardrobe and assume it is out of place until the camera lingers on the fake wood grain to give it aesthetic validity. Zeca, the useless brother, wears a tiger outfit because there has been a carnival but the tiger skin has no relevance to what he does and how he is perceived by his mother. Zeca is not a tiger, and nobody is confused by the outfit or thinks his odd appearance has consequence. Zeca is a threat to the ambitions of Dr Robert Ledgard and his crazy assistant because he is coarse and an idiot, not because he is a tiger.
To dismiss skin and arbitrary social identity as irrelevant, Almodovar needs an alternative. His efforts are not convincing. The evocation of the yoga instructor to discover the inner self and the DNA helix model that we see as we watch the end credits are superficial and slight references. The film, though, has a good ending. Almodovar is unequivocal. Gays have to be true to themselves. Vincent may have a different skin and the body of a woman but he is still Vincent. Because of his body and appearance, he will be different to many men. The end scene implies that it is likely that he will now prefer the company of women. His identity, though, will be decided by Vincent and not by what society thinks of his appearance.
Because Frankenstein made an error and assumed that the Creature that he created was not human, the Creature was condemned to being rejected and misunderstood. Heterosexual hierarchical authority is the Frankenstein that is built into society and it consists too often of people who are consumed by guilt over their own repressed desires. Inevitably such people react to what they see and, lacking curiosity, they assume that what they see is identity when it is only appearance. Frankenstein was repelled by the Creature and the scientist doubted his motives and his ability to cope with what might happen next. Almodovar is clear on gender and identity. No one is entitled to the privilege of determining the identity of any other person other than him or herself. For all individuals that responsibility is personal and exclusive. Humans are fragile, and balancing the exclusive and universal is difficult but it is a responsibility that cannot be ignored.
Howard Jackson has had five books published by Red Rattle Books. His latest book Choke Bay is now available here. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the other books of Howard Jackson and other great titles, click here.