Almodovar’s latest fits right into the OCCUPY NOWHERE fold, and brings the shared idea of “formative seclusion” more inward (literally) than any other film to be discussed in this column. It is also the first example of forced seclusion. Perhaps it’s the stained-glass markings on protagonist Vera’s (Elena Anaya) body that brings percentages to mind, but The Skin I Live In gives new meaning to “the 99%.” So much of human identity exists beneath the corporeal surface – residing in memory, desire and cognition – despite the staggering significance we afford the exterior 1%. Vera’s sculpted surface, and her darkly concealing eyes evoke notions of icebergs; how the majority of their mass (upwards of 90%) is actually beneath the waves. Nothing of what is exposed can express what lies beneath. Vera, imprisoned in numerous ways by the calculating Dr. Robert Ledgard (a severe Antonio Banderas), turns inward on her own 99% – and cultivates a true identity of self awareness and freedom.
Dr. Robert Ledgard – a surgical genius, performer of two face-transplants – addresses an auditorium. He reveals aims to develop a synthetic skin replacement, boasting its resilience against burns and mosquito bites in “animal” testing. Not only has Ledgard produced the skin, he has tested it on a human subject, Vera. Like the sheer swatches of flesh he grows in petri dishes at the secret medical facility beneath his mansion, Ledgard’s agenda to “improve the species” is a veil upon his obsession. The fervor to develop this miracle skin arose from his wife’s tragic demise. Burned head to toe in an automobile fire but survived, she leapt to her death upon glimpsing her tortured reflection. She was unable to understand her own identity as entwined with her visage, which is the films conceptual crux. Though Ledgard’s intentions are far more personal than professional, the ethics and taboo surrounding his intra-special trans-genetic method (combining human and pig genetic material to firm and strengthen human skin) are timely considering the rate of medical and technological advances, congruent with raging debates over enterprises like stem-cell research, cloning, and genetically modified organisms. In a sense, the climate of controversy and the lethargy of ethical courses is what forces Ledgard to occupy his own nowhere within which his innovation can be viciously unbound.
As The Skin I Live In sways backward in time through the dreams of Ledgard and his prisoner Vera (between which a sexual dynamic arises), a new character, Vincent, enters the melodramatic fray. This charismatic lost young man crashes a gala party at Ledgard’s mansion. While high on pills, he has an unsavory ambiguous sexual encounter with Norma, the doctor’s emotionally unstable daughter. Ledgard stumbles upon his unconscious daughter outside who awakes into screams and sobs. He assumes the worst – rape – deciphers the Vincent’s identity, and kidnaps him. Ledgard holes Vincent up in a dark cave beneath his mansion, chained to the wall, starving, with only a blue tub full of drinking water. During this time, a very damaged Norma commits suicide in the same manner as her mother. Vincent eventually graduates to small meals of rice, the ability to read magazines, and changes of clothes.
The worst comes as Ledgard indentures Vincent as an unwitting surgical pet. The stunning twist of the film is that Ledgard forces Vincent into rigorous sexual reassignment. Vincent moves into the mansion proper and is locked in as minimalist a room as can be conceived, monitored by a camera. The only communication allowed is through the intercom, to the caretaker of the estate. Food, books, magazines, and art supplies are delivered via an electronic dumbwaiter. Over the course of several years Ledgard sculpts Vincent’s entire body, down to the structure of his face, to bear an uncanny resemblance to his deceased wife. Thus, from the clay of Vincent, Vera is born. A stunning dark eyed beauty, whose every glance is as empty as it is full, and swells with as much fatalism as vitality.
Living in the skin of Vera – one of many levels of captivity – Vincent culls a personal language that eluded him in his bouts of unrequited love, drugs or craft (making widow arrangements for his mother’s small vintage fashion boutique). Underneath his aloofness and drug use, Vincent seemed dissatisfied with his life, especially in his affections for a coworker – a woman who loves only women. In the reductive atmosphere of his imprisonment, Vincent/Vera discovers the discipline of yoga. Vera learns two powerful truths; that a hidden place of solitude and infinity resides within, and that above all “art keeps you free.” Vera scrawls these words on the wall amidst an epic chronicle of ideas and observations drawn floor to ceiling.
A relationship exists between Vera as a sculpturo-surgical patchwork, Ledgard as the sculptor, and the layered fabric works of artist Louise Bourgeois (seen in books by Vera). Bourgeois taps into themes of sexual fragility, concealed emotional trauma, and “architecture as a visual expression of memory.” Almodovar interprets the existential challenge of holding the memory of oneself (the 99%) after the physical architecture of ones body (the 1%) is changed. Inspired by Bourgeois and his own circumstances, Vincent/Vera writes, draws and sculpts. For the first time he creates from a source of ingenuity tapped deep within. Later, in Vincent’s climactic savage bid for freedom, he embraces Vera Cruz, and kisses a picture of Vincent goodbye. A gesture built upon much introspection.
Upon returning to his mother’s shop, Vincent-as-Vera reveals his/her true identity. Here, The Skin I Live In twists its morally objectionable events into something devastatingly and strangely soulful, as something is alight between Vera (now a woman) and Vincent’s unrequited lesbian love, still working at the shop. Thus, the film concludes upon an end-which-is-a-beginning. The Skin I Live In builds the foundational significance for all the possibilities unseen after the final frame, but which were laid by the destructive-cum-formative experience of Vincent/Vera’s forced occupation of nowhere.