(2011) Directed by Pedro Almodóvar; Written by Pedro Almodóvar and Agustín Almodóvar; Based on the novel Tarantula by Thierry Jonquet; Starring: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Jan Cornet and Marisa Paredes; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
Horror is most effective when it burrows beneath the surface, to prey on our primal fears and insecurities. The Skin I Live In is such a horror film, more interested in exploring the psychological effects of body modification rather than dwelling on sordid details or jarring imagery. Director and co-writer Pedro Almodóvar is known for endowing his films with commentary about sexual roles through strong female characters, and this is no exception. In this film Almodóvar explores skin as a literal concept, but delves into an extended metaphor that examines not only what skin reveals but what it hides.
We are first introduced to Vera Cruz (Elena Anaya) as a patient/prisoner of famed surgeon Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas). We’re aware that she’s part of some experiment, but can only surmise about the purpose. Superficially, she appears normal, but we’re left to speculate about what sort of horrible accident led her to this present fate. Clad in a tan body stocking that looks like a cross between a bandage and leotard, her appearance evokes images of Elsa Lanchester as the Bride of Frankenstein. Similar to Dr. Frankenstein’s creation, Vera is forcibly kept against her will, and her current predicament is out of her realm of control. She roams her locked room like a caged wild animal and writes on the walls to pass the hours. When she puts on the dresses that Dr. Ledgard provides, she proceeds to shred them into strips of cloth. Anaya’s measured, enigmatic performance as Vera is pitch perfect, as she outwardly presents a visage of innocence that belies rage about her captivity and manipulation.
Banderas is compelling as Dr. Ledgard, a brilliant researcher who has developed a new form of synthetic skin. Prompted by the death of his wife in a fiery automobile accident, his new skin is impervious to flame and disease. When he presents his findings at a medical conference, he conveniently conceals the fact that his research has progressed from mice to humans. Based on the treatment of his current subject, it’s evident that his intentions are not as altruistic as he would lead everyone else to believe. Ledgard’s housekeeper (who’s more than just a housekeeper) reminds him how closely Vera resembles his deceased wife, implying that shaping Vera into her specific, current form was purely intentional. He watches Vera intently, through a giant television screen, fascinated but frightened by his handiwork. Now that he’s taken his artificial skin project to the next level, he’s not quite sure what to do with her. Ledgard is totally consumed by his obsessions. As someone who recently lost everything that he loved, he has nothing left to do but carry on with his grand experiment.
The title The Skin I Live In works on a host of different levels. In Vera’s case, if her new skin is resistant to different types of potentially damaging agents, how much can she really feel? The title is also a reference to the inner demons that the film’s characters are forced to live with. Once we choose to follow a certain path, we must accept the consequences of our decisions. Dr. Ledgard was unable to save his wife, but devoted his research to alleviate the suffering she endured. His research, however, came at the expense of ethics or concern for Vera’s well-being. And what about Vera’s secrets? Underneath Vera’s exterior lies a tormented individual with a shadowy past. Gradually, through flashback, her past comes to light, and we are able to see her complicity in all of this. I don’t want to give away too much, since learning the various characters’ secrets is one of the most intriguing aspects of the film. It’s probably best to see this with as little foreknowledge as possible. Suffice it to say that nothing is quite as simple as it appears on the surface.
No one in The Skin I Live In is entirely unsympathetic, even though each of the main characters has done terrible things. Almodóvar doesn’t afford us the comfort of providing a distinct divide between good and evil. We are forced to see both points of view, of victim and monster, and decide for ourselves where we draw the moral/ethical line. No one leaves this film completely unscathed. Dr. Ledgard is more than just a modern version of the archetypal mad scientist. Anyone who has ever experienced a devastating loss could understand his point of view, up to a point (there is certainly more to Ledgard’s story than the loss of his wife). And while Vera does not ultimately deserve her fate, it is she who has inadvertently brought it upon herself. The Skin I Live In is an unconventional horror film that will likely provoke debate and discussion long after its secrets are revealed.