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At The Movies: The Skin I Live In, or Markgraf’s Continued Facial Incontinence

2011 September 1

Before I get stuck into this review proper, I want you to know, readers, that I have found it impossible to review without spoilers.  THERE ARE SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW.  If you care about spoilers for this film, scroll on down past the review to the illustrations and the “you should/should not see this film because…” bullet points.

Other thing is, there’s talk of rape in this, too.

Now, I went to see The Skin I Live In (La Piel Que Habito) on my own, which was possibly a mistake, the reason for which you’ll realise as you read on.  I have a little snippet of anxiety left over from school whereby if I go to do something alone, I’ll be afraid I’m in the wrong place.  I’ll get my ticket, read the ticket, go to the place it says on the ticket, but I’ll still be a bit scared that I’m somehow, magically, in the wrong place.

So there I sat in the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge, nervously clutching my mug of tea (THEY LET YOU BRING FUCKING TEA INTO THE FUCKING CINEMA OH MY GOD HEAVEN IN AN AUDITORIUM!!!!), wondering if, when the film started, it’d be the right one or not.

Ten minutes of sumptuous interiors, high-angled shots, hyper-saturated film and an onslaught of seething, brooding madness in, I realised with great satisfaction that yep, I’m watching a goddamned Pedro Almodóvar film.  That man has his favourite toys, tropes and themes, doesn’t he?  This is another film that watches class through a fish-eye lens, focussing on the life of a very well-off, in-demand surgeon (Antonio Banderas), who is currently undertaking research into the growth of synthetic human skin for the treatment of burns sufferers.  He has “help” and a housekeeper and everything.

Also, he keeps a young woman (Elena Anaya) as a pet in a locked room and does experiments on her.

This is just the set-up.  This is all revealed in the first extravagant slice of immaculately tailored, dressed and designed film.  It goes further. Every single character in this film is broken in some fundamental way.  Or if they don’t start out that way, they become that way.

The only truly sympathetic character, I found, was that of the housekeeper, Marilia (Marisa Paredes).  She’s stalwart and practical, caring and protective, and I wish she survived ’til the end, but she doesn’t.  I was surprised, actually, that there were any purely sympathetic characters at all in this film – it’s Almodóvar, no-one is innocent ever!  And, indeed, she is the only fully likeable, empathic person in the film.  Everyone else is absolutely horrible in some ways, and deeply sympathetic in others, leaving you with absolutely no bloody idea what to make of them overall.

So far, so Almodóvar.

Now, while I was watching this, absorbing it like a sponge, my thoughts drifted – as they are wont to do – to the rest of the Almodóvar canon.  My favourite film of his by a long shot is Bad Education, and if you’ve not watched it, you really must – but he really does have this ongoing obsession (theme, exploration, whatever you want to call it) with transgender people, and the process of transforming gender presentation, and whether or not transformation redeems.  He’s also good at casting real trans* people as transgender characters, which is something that Hollywood has yet to realise is a thing that they should fucking do, too.  “Huh,” I thought, with this in mind, watching Antonio Banderas’s distressingly hot surgeon-gone-mad leaking deep-eyed insanity all over the cinema, “There’s no trans* folk in this!  Weird, for Almodóvar, to not at least have one of us.”

And then everyone was trans* and everything hurt.

No, I’m serious.  Holy shit.  Yes!  Indeed, ALL film literature on this is meticulously devoid of spoilers (and I’m ruining that now, hahar!) but the pretty young thing Scary Dr. Richard is keeping as a toy/pet/experiment/wife replacement/wall-to-wall security camera work of art (I’m not even joking) is the bloke that raped his daughter and has been surgically rebuilt to look like a cis woman as punishment.

Now, before I explore that comprehensive cinematographic clusterfuck in more detail, I’m going to make a quick aside here and say that this film also deals with consent and choice, and what happens to our minds when these basic human rights are removed from us.  There’s a lot of relatively graphic sex in it, and not all of it is 100% doubtlessly consensual, so please bear that in mind if you’re off to watch it.  There’s also non-consensual body modification and surgery, none of which is graphic, but the treatment of it is brutal and plays upon the mind’s ability to patch in worse realities than that to which it’s denied visual access.  And there’s also kidnapping, gagging, drugging, imprisonment and so on, all of which is beautifully and luxuriantly filmed for your horrified pleasure.  Nothing is sacred, no-one is innocent, and everything is broken.  It’s amazing.  It’s like, as the film goes on, it peels off layers of scabs to reveal more horrible things underneath.

Back to the sex reassignment thing, then.  This is the first time I have ever seen in a film the notion of sex reassignment as punishment.  I’ve seen castration as punishment (The Ladies Club), I’ve seen rape as punishment for being transgender (Boys Don’t Cry) but I’ve not seen this.  Now, my initial reaction was, “ASDLAKSJFLDKG HOW DARE MR. ALMODOVAR USE THE REALITY OF SEX REASSIGNMENT LIKE IT’S SOME KIND OF DREADFUL, FEARFUL THING THAT ANYONE WOULD HATE TO HAVE HAPPEN TO THEM” and then I realised that he’s actually written a pretty good precis of what it’s like to be a trans man.

Vicente, the rapist of Richard’s daughter, and let’s ignore the rape part for the moment, is taken away and forcibly reassigned “female”.  He’s given a vulva, new skin and breasts, and from the looks of it, a new bone structure and voice, too.  (And there’s also the bit where Antonio Banderas chains him up and shaves him with a straight razor, which gave me that’s-my-kink related problems…)

But he still identifies as Vicente – despite quite literally wearing Richard’s dead wife’s face (the reason, I presume, that the part of Vera is not played by a trans woman) – is tortured by how he now has all these different dressy, make-up-y and vaginal intercourse-y expectations of him, and finds solace in yoga and opium to help him forget the pain.

Dude, that’s me.  Except without the yoga and the opium and… a few other things, too, but the main theme is there.  This is the non-consensual assignment of a sex and attributed gender role that you just aren’t.  He plays along and acts the part, but only as long as he absolutely has to before he can escape.

So that was the first time I ever sympathised with a rapist in a film, the end.

A labelled diagram entitled "How to tell if a character in an Almodovar film is going to act up".  It shows Antonio Banderas as the protagonist from The Skin I Live In, with deep-set, mad eyes and beautiful hands, wearing a suit.  In the background, there is a groovy light fitting and a luxurious painting.  The diagram is labelled with ways in which to tell if he is about to kick off.  The labels are, "Inexplicably cheerful light fittings", "owns lots of paintings", "curiously attractive", "very well-dressed", "lovely hands that do a lot on film", and (in caps), "EYES OF A SERIAL KILLER."  The whole image is a hand-drawn cartoon-style picture on textured card with fun, bright colours.

Seriously. Watch his films and tell me if I'm wrong. I'm not.

Apparently, people walked out of the preview screening here in Cambridge, which surprises me.  There’s nothing graphic (other than sex) in this film, and really, then, you’re only left with the themes to run with, and I can’t really see how you could be disgusted to the point of walk-out over the themes in this film.  The cynical feminist in me wonders if the very idea of sex reassignment is really that disgusting to some people…

You should see this film because:
It’s Almodóvar’s most comprehensible and accessible film that I’ve seen, and would make a nice introduction to how brilliant his work is
– It’s absolutely brutal, terrifying and bizarre, and those are all qualities that make good cinema
– It’s beautifully made, perfectly cast, and the soundtrack made me cry
– You won’t see another film like it, ever

You should not see this film because:
HOLY NON-CON TRIGGERS, BATMAN
– Antonio Banderas is problematically hot and it’s difficult to watch him being such a terrifying pile of mess and insanity without fancying him a lot
– OR AT LEAST I THOUGHT SO, BUT THEN, I DO HAVE THE WORST TASTE IN MEN EVER

A hand-drawn cartoon image on textured card dpicting Markgraf - a young, pale-skinned, orange-haired man with glasses - sitting at a desk, looking stressed.  He is gritting his teeth and sweating.  In front of him are pens, and a blank piece of card.  He is thinking, "How am I going to illustrate this review?  Gotta be something clever and witty... something that does the film fustice and... makes sense... something relevant... something our readers will like..." while in the background, there is a wall of text depicting his continuous thoughts of "DRAW YOURSELF NAKED".

Exclusive behind-the-scenes footage of your host EVERY TIME HE HAS TO ILLUSTRATE ANYTHING

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Pet Jeffery permalink
    September 1, 2011

    Without having seen the film, my guess is that people walked out of the preview screening because it raised disquieting personal issues for them.

  2. Pet Jeffery permalink
    September 1, 2011

    The theme of non-consensual gender reassignment isn’t new. I found it in a book I read as a teenager called “Dead Men Do Tell Tales” by Byron de Prorok:

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Dead-Tales-Adventure-Exploration-Africa/dp/B0007DSS6I/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1314868463&sr=1-4

    It might, perhaps, be regarded as a radical extension of the theme of enforced cross dressing, which is a very common one in transvestite pornography.

  3. Stephen B permalink
    September 1, 2011

    Without having a stake in the issue, I’d imagine that enforced gender-reassignment is something that WOULD be incredibly traumatic for a cis- person who has never thought that this aspect of them would change. It’s a very fundamental and core part of themselves, inside every private boundary, and ‘invasive’ wouldn’t begin to cover it.

    It also gets really interesting when you look at how cis-males who may have been raised with strict expectations of masculinity then panic about being *seen* as female, with years of baggage where appearing more feminine than others could get you physically attacked.

    All in all, that movie sounds goddamn triggery for just about everyone :)

  4. kirsty permalink
    September 1, 2011

    Been reassessing this constantly since i left the cinema – wasn’t sure what i thought during or after the film, still not sure, which is a reaction i don’t think i’ve ever had to a film before!

    I definitely don’t think it’s his most accessible introductory film – that would be All About My Mother or Talk to Her, for me, and on balance i think I prefer him when he has fewer bells, whistles and stuff being eye-searingly colourful and studded with loud bangs. The quieter moments were definitely the best for me. But that’s just me, of course (like the ‘kirsty’ at the top of this comment doesn’t already tell you that!)

    But i did think there was some really interesting stuff going on, especially in comparison with something like Marnie or Vertigo (famously Almadovar’s favourite film) – Banderas really reminded me of Marnie’s hot-but-very-rapey-and-control-freaky Sean Connery, and it’s an interesting take on the woman-creation of the second half of Vertigo. To have the Kim Novak / Tippi Hendren character ‘start out’ as a cis man is a great reinterpretation of that whole genre…

  5. Ladygray permalink
    September 1, 2011

    I was unutterably disappointed in this film. All the unnecessary tit shots and vulnerable woman stuff made me think I was watching a straight man’s wank fest. It forced me to watch his entire back-catalogue to see if I’d been duped all my formative years by Almodovar.
    And I found out I haven’t, entirely. I just wanted him to be perfect ALWAYS. What a silly girl I am. Must stop being distracted by his shiny baubles.

  6. September 2, 2011

    YAY for the behind-the-scenes Markgraf in action!

    (I got nothing to say about the movie. I have never seen an Almodovar movie in my life and I wouldn’t if they paid me)

  7. KAA permalink
    September 2, 2011

    Thank you for your review. I’ve been trawling the net for opinions on this film as I really want to see it but suspect it will be massively and quite specifically triggering for me so am doing my homework first. Yours has been one of the most thoughtful and honest I’ve read and one of the few that has allowed me the kind of insight I need to prepare myself mentally.

    I just wanted to tell the cynical feminist and trans person in you (and indeed any others reading this who might have their own personal anxieties seeing someone walk out over this film) that if I do walk out of the cinema (and I hope I am able to face my demons long enough not to), it won’t be in disgust about sex reassignment surgery, but because of not being able to cope with what look to be some very personally triggering themes, graphic or not. I’m just one person, but I wanted to say something to tip the balance the other way as I figure there’s enough fucked up hatred in this world without us all being conditioned by experience to fear or assume it to be where it is not.

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