Blesok no. 86, September-October, 2012
It Is I, Vicente!
The Skin I Live In (“La piel que habito“, 2011) seems to be one of those films that are watched only once – a sudden twist film, when the moment of complete surprise, which is somewhere mid-way in the film, gives the initial story a completely new dimension. Hence, each time it is watched again, the knowledge of the surprise already “spoils” this effect. However, with each new viewing, we understand that this film is much more than a surprise movies or a story with a twist. Its story is much deeper and has many more meanings than it seems; each new viewing peels yet another layer which reveals a new dimension. Thus, The Skin I Live In has strong elements of a horror story,Cineuropa; http://cineuropa.org/nw.aspx?t=newsdetail&documentID=145048, accessed on 3 June, 2012)."> a drama, and even a psychological thrisller, but also of a “Spanish” soap opera. At an interpretative level, the film is also contemplation about the boudaries and limitations of the inner and outer space regarding the phylosophical questions about freedom as opposed to fate, or choice as opposed to what is given. How are all of these elements found in the film?
* * *
The story of The Skin I Live In is the following: Dr. Ledgard, a scientist and a plastic surgeon, tries and manages to bring his wife Gal to life after an accident in which she suffers horrible burns. However, after getting better, she sees her deformed face and kills herself by jumping from the window and falling in front of their daughter’s feet; the daugther remains psuchologically fragile after this event and eventually she ends her life in the same way as her mother. After this tragedy, Dr. Ledgard dedicates himself to the mission of discovering a new skin that would be resistant to fire and other injuries. However, his researh, which uses stem cells and cloning, is considered unethical by part of his colleagues, and therefore, a dangerous one to be researched. He conducts his experiments on a female patient who lives closed in a room inside his luxurious villa (where he also illegally conducst various plastic surgeries). By reminiscence, flashbacks, moving back and forth in the story, via the above mentioned moment of surpriose, Almodovar reveals the real identity of the woman that dr. Ledgard calls Vera. It turns out that Vera is actually Vicente, a young man Dr. Ledgard considers responsible for his daughter’s suicide. In order to take his revenge against him, the doctor keeps him hostage for years, chnaging his sex with a series of plastic surgeries, against his will. In a style that is typically of Almodovar, Dr. Ledgard falls in love with Vera/Vicente, or his/her new face, made after the model of his late wife’s face; when it seems that the story is about to have a bizarre happy end, instead of living happily ever after, Vera/Vicente kills Dr. Ledgard and runs from the prison he has imposed upon him/her.
The literary matrix for the film is Thierry Jonquet’s novel Tarantula (Mygale, 1995); Pedro Almodovar bought its copy rights in the mid-1990s, but due to “technical possibilities” he only filmed it in 2010. Almodovar opens his film with a replica of one of the most famous scenes in cinematography, the villa entrance scene, which is “identical” to the beginning scene of Orson Welles in his Citizen Kane. As the cammera slides through the door and enters the lonely castle, it also indicates that it has no intention to follow a straight line in time, but that it would go both to the past and the future to achieve its goal. With this approach, at the very beginning, the director suggests the strange, unusual and “asocial/sociopathological” or even “psychopatological” atmosphere. It is suggested that Dr. Ledgard is a weird man, somehow similar to Charles Foster Kane, a rich excentric for whom it is no unusual to also resort to illegal activities in order to obtain financial benefits. Later, as the story develops, one sees that he is also an “adopted” heir of a very rich aristocratic family. Here, as in many other places in the film, Almodovar, as an intelligent postmodern author, skilfully uses intertextuality and intermedialitty, which is an initiation for plot building, redirecting it very skillfullty, via the film elements, to telling his own story and opening questions related to identity and gender, which are issues in the focus of the contemporary theory and philosophy.
The initial sequences of the film already reveal the mysterious woman imprisoned in a big room filled with cameras: a voyeur (man) watching her as she exercises yoga. Dr. Ledgard stares at the image of the woman on the wall of his bedroom. Her image on the screens is an image of the female body from the paintings of big masters, she is lying in an odalisc position, an exotic tenant of a Turkish harem, and an oriental fantasy painted by Goya, Manet or Engr, and Almodovar gives her a voluptious new life and a broader meaning. However, the initial image also hides something mopre, a new reading of a famous sculpture “Arch of Hysteria” by Louise Bourgeois (1993). The reference to Bourgeois, which Almodovar notes in a “footnote” opens the seemingly “second layer” in the story. However, as it is determined later, the “second layer” is actually the leading one and the main axis of the story, while the “first layer”, i.e. what is seen on the surface, i.e. what is recorded on the film is only an auxiliary means to also tell and accept the main idea of the author. Therefore, the title of Bourgeois’s work that Almodovar copies in Vera’s asana is also interesting. The hysteria, a phenomenon that has been ascribed soleley to female psyche by Freud is thus introduced in the film at the very beginning, as a hint of the extreme emotiation state in which she [Vera] is found. However, what is even more important is that the figure that is found in the traditional position of hysteria with Bourgeois is a male one. Taking his position from Bourgeois, and noting this, Almodovar immediately implies that he too, as Bourgeois, will relativise the borders of the traditional social and gender roles of women and men in the film that follows, as well as the seeming (biological) determination of sexes and their role in the creation of the gender identities. Or, in other words, he immediately implies that Vera is not only what she seems to be – a beautiful young woman.
Almodovar then builds the story by taking us into the past several times and slowly undoing the entangled layers of a bizare story of an obsessive surgeon, moral dilemas of sex change, supressed traumas from the past, but also the punishment as athe element of revenge. Ledgard’s bedroom appears as a functionla stage space at the beginning of the film (when it is used as a control room to monitor Vera), and after the mirder of Zeca/the tiger, when he [Ledgard] and Vera fall asleep after the unsuccessful attempt to have sex, as well as in the final scences. Same or similar space in a technical sense is the kitchen where Marilia spends most of the film, and where there are also control monitors of the room where Vera stays. This disintegration to smaller spaces (Vera’s room, Ledgard’s bedroom, Marilia’s kitchen), whose function is to build the atmosphere in Almodovar’s stiory is also an allusion to Louis Bourgeois’s work, i.e. installation “Cells” (1990-93). Bourgeois herself tells that the cells are “different types of pain; physical, emotional and psychological, mental and intellectual… Each Cell deals with a fear. Fear is pain… Each Cell deals with the pleasure of the voyeur, the thrill of looking and being looked at.”
* * *
Vera’s room (or Bourgeois’s cell) slowly turns into a kind of a safety room during the film, an artificial womb where she takes the shape of her new, female identity. Vera, except in some cases (when she is in the operation hall in the other part of the castle) spends all of her time there; she works, reads, watches TV, practices yoga and “hangs out” with Ledgard smokign opium. She even starts writing on the wall. There, she also hides from Zeca, the estanged son of Marilia, who recognises the former wife of Dr. Ledgard in her, the one he was involved with; they had a car accident when he managed to escape and she remained trapped in the burnign car. Seeing her in Vera, he forces her to sex, and the culmination of this sequence is when Dr. Ledgard enters the room and kills Zeca. The next scenes show us the yard where Vera and Marilia burn the sheets and other clothes with blood stains, tryign to conceal the traces of the crime. During the conversation, Marlia reveals the biggest secret to Vera: Zeca and Dr. Robert Ledgard are (half) brothers, and she is their mother. In the seemingly postslimactic moment of what looks like a Spanish soap opera conclusion, after the unsuccessful attempt to make love, the story beging to unfold, via flash backs in Vera and Ledgard’s dreams.
Thus, in the most surprising moment of the film, we understand that Ledgard’s daugther, just discarged from a mental hospital, meets a younf man at a wedding party; she likes him and together with a company of young people she goes out to be with him. The young man’s name is Vicente and he is a son of a woman who sells used and unique clothes and owns a shop in the near-by town. After some time Ledgard notices the absence of his daughter and goes out to look for her. In the park, near the villa, he comes across a real sexual orgy, and a bit further he finds his uncoscious daughter, half-naked, against a tree. Then Norma ends up in the hospital again, where she follows “the footsteps of her mother” and kills herself. After this, Ledgard decides to have a monstrous revenge: he kidnaps Vicent and takes him to this castle named El Cigarral (the name means orchard) and locks him in the basement. There he first ties him for a wall at the corner of the room and leaves him but a vessel with water. Later, he also gives him food and moves him to another wall; in the end the revenge culminates with the sex change operation: Vicente becomes Vera.
All of these vertical layers of Almodovar’s film can be related to the history of punishment described in Michel Foucault’s “Discipline and Punish” (“Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison”, 1975). The book is about administration of punishment according to the deed/crime that has been committed and the way in which punishments were historically administered. It starts by public executions and corporal punishments (cutting off body parts, stretching to death), and ends with withdrawl of punishment into the penitentiary system and chnaging the way of punishment; now the punishment is not only physical, not only corporal, but also personal, when there is longer imprisonment and certauin measures taken to influence the criminal and his/her psyche, as the usage of chemicals. Almodovar decides to conceal the punishment and his revenge is not public, with a public message, i.e. he does not commit the revenge by murder or public mutiliation. On the contrary, the revenge or punishment takes place at the most secret place that one can imagine – most modern laboratories and a surgical room, placed in an old castle, previously used for secret surgeries of rich patients that insisted on secrecy and the price of their pleasure was never questioned. Hidden from public eyes, and withotu any risk of being discovered, the revenge/punishment is equally cruel and rough as the intiial medieval punishments, described in Foucault’s book. It is only that this time the victim does not die physically, but it is his/her initial identity that dies, his/her sex, his masculinity, i.e. according to the one that executes the punishment, what initially used to be the reason for the crime. The punishment is a new identity, a female one, i.e. the identity of the victim of the crime. “After repentance that destroys the body, there should be punishment that acts deep in the heart, deep in the thoughts, in the will, in the miood. Mably formulates the credo: ‘The punishment, if I can say so, hurts the soul more than it does the body’… The body and blood, the inevitable partners in the view of punishment, withdraw. A new maksed personality enters the sate. The tragedy ends, the comedy of sahdows starts, of voices without faces, of untouchable personalituies. The punitive judiciary aparatus should not bite into this bodiless reality.”
The two functions in the overall social system of punishment: the revengor (state, dignitory, etc) and the punisher (usually a paid person who will execute the punishment) with Almodovar are given in the single person of Dr. Ledgard, i.e. “God”. Ledgard saves and takes lives (he saves his wife from death, he saves Vera from suicide, and on the other hand he kills Zeca), but as a plastic surgeon he also shapes faces and bodies according to his ideas, such as in the case of Vicente/Vera. As the “Allmighty”, he allowes himself to “kill” Vicente, physically chnaging his sex, but he also attempts to “recreate” him via other accessories, psycially and psychologically, so that Vicente, who turns into Vera later, chnages his consciousness and psychologuically, emotionally, but also gender-wise accept that he is a woman. However, Ledgard also carries inside him the original sin of the fallen angel, i.e. Lucifer, because he claims the role of the creator, the one who incites the new life, the omnipotent creator, and this role can only belong to God, and nobody else, man the least. Therefore, the laboratory and the surgical hall are there to “demonize” Ledgard, i.e. his identification with Dr. Frankenstein. The creature made by a man is against the nature, human creatures are born by women and God grants them life. Therefore, every man that wishes to take His role (Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Ledgard) creates something unnatural, monstrous and therefore, he has to be punished. Thus, the punishment that Ledgard exercises over Vicente/Vera is paradoxically also the germ of the punishment that he also has to face – the monster wlll eventually kill its father. Actually, one of the well known works by Louise Bourgeois”s is entitled “Destruction of the Father” (1974). Although he is locked in a female body, it seems that Viencte keeps his intial male identity and slowly, with a strong intention kills, i.e. deconstructs the “father” Dr. Ledgard, and his mother, the servant Marilia, as a symbol of family. He symbolically deconstructs both the prevailing family relations and values from the social norms that also predefine the identity of the individual.
Here one should state that the process of gender indentity change of Vicente is actually an introduction into the real daramatic space of Almodovar’s film. Vaginoplatistics opens the entrance to the inner space, Vicente’s body, which, after some time, after surgical and plastic “processing” becomes Vera, i.e. a transsexual in the real meaning of the word. After some time Ledgard starts to shape him after the face of his late wife, saying that he can no longer call himself Vicente, but that he is Vera from then on. At these moments, the male body of Vicente is transformed into a woman’s body and he becomes a prisoner of his own body. Almodovar’s story thus multiplies itself into more spatial levels – from the external space made of more cells, via focusing on Vera’s room as the womb of her creation, to narrowing down of the inner space to her new, limited body.
* * *
In Vicente/Vera’s flashbacks, there is aslo the shop of his/her mother. It is a very interesting stage space of several aspects. There is the paralel form of voyer observation of Vicente through s frame, i.e. through the window of the back room where she makes the dresses. This way of metaphorical voyerism can be put in paralel with the initial scences of the film when Ledragrd observes Vera via the hidden cameras placed in her room and the big TV screen in his bedroom. Thererefore the question about the subtle story telling via the symbols and frame as an esthetic featire of the film sequence to imply part of the plot or the pscycho-pethological features of a character. However, how she looks at Ledgard while he looks at her; this i s a series of looks that remind of John Berger’s remark: “Men see women. Women see themselves while they are being seen.” Almodovar has his own ideas, which he playfully researches with every twist into the labyrinth. Thus, it is not by accident that he gives the role of a lasbian to the assistant (or shopkeeper) in his mother’s store; Vicente is in love with her (as a joke or seriously) and he persuades her to go out, while she disagrees. Most probably, inspired by the many philosophical and sociological discussions that are led around the indetity issues when it comes to sexes and gender, the one carried by birth or determined by social norms, and what we feel ouyrselves, regardless of the physicus in which we reside.
At first modestly, but still openly enough to feel the real tendency of the scrip that is based on the crime novel “Tarantula” by Thierry Jonquet, which is also the title of one of the well known Louis Bourgeois’s sculptures. Let us not forget that Louis Bourgeois is the “mother of the art of the American feminist identity” and that in the last decades of her life she was especially dedicated to the issues of identity, gender, sex. Her sculptures research the deepest emotions of women, birth, sexuality and death and her work is very influential with the younger artists. One can freely say that Alomodovar’s film is a subtle dedication to Louis Bourgeois’s, and her views on these issues. Here one has both construction and deconstruction as narrative elements, but with strong messages and excellent usage of some of her sculptures and installations by the director.
Vicente/Vera runs away from the castle (where he/she was kept a prisoner) into his/her “freedom”, his mother’s shop. Although Dr. Ledgard has imprisoned him in a female body from which he cannot escape, he knows his identity well (as Dr. Ledgard has not managed to change it), he goes back and at the moment when he enters his/her mother’s shop, he should know who he is. He feels as the person from six years ago, when he left on his motorbike, in Vicente’s body. “I like the idea that the identity is something that is inaccessible to the scholarly advanced. However, regardless of the scientific progress, eventually even masculinity and femininity have no relation to genitals. It is beyond it”, says Almodovar in an interview.
The film ends with a simple line, an exclamation: IT IS I, VICENTE!
1. Álmodovar himself has described his film as a “horror story without screams or frights” (Ríos Pérez, Sergio (5 May 2010). "Álmodovar, Badyona make 'ambitious, high-quality European films from Spain'". Cineuropa; http://cineuropa.org/nw.aspx?t=newsdetail&documentID=145048, accessed on 3 June, 2012).
3. "Centre Pompidou Louise Bourgeois Exhibition Itinerary" (http://www.centrepompidou.fr/fr/La-visite#enseignants). Accessed on 3 June 2012.
4. Мишел Фуко. Надзор и казна. Слово: Скопје 2004. p. 20.
5. http://www.artslant.com/la/articles/show/2711. Accessed on 3 June 2012.
6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ways_of_Seeing; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Berger
7. As Simone de Beauvoir said (“Le Deuxième Sexe”, 1949), one is not born a woman, but rather becomes one.