«Art is a guarantee of health»—or, according to the French-American sculpture Louise Joséphine Bourgeois (1911 – 2010) Almodóvar is referencing, a guarantee of sanity. And it’s a thought that the director takes no reservations exploring in his latest creation. Based off of Thierey Jonquet’s novel Mygale, The Skin I live In (2011) won the BAFTA’s “Best Film Not in the English Language” category in addition to being nominated for 4 Goya awards (Elena Anaya taking home Best Actress), and has had no shortage of general critical acclaim. It’s been described as an erotic psychosexual thriller and there have been stylistic comparisons made to Kubrick. But there’s even more to it. In fact, it’s arguably Almodóvar’s best yet and is perhaps better described as a twisted mix of obsession, identity and sexuality—covering everything from rape to love, revenge to loss.
Set in modern-day Toledo, the film opens at El Cigarral, an estate located along the Tajo river. Using the location’s interior and exterior extravagance to his artistic benefit as well as to foreshadow the maniacal meticulousness of his protagonist, Dr. Robert Legard (Antonio Banderas), Almodóvar pays tribute to Tiziano Vecelli’s polemic 16th century Venus of Urbino, and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon within the first fifteen minutes. The Venus hangs in the hallway of El Cigarral’s entry-room, underscoring the perfection Ledgard strives for in his work; decorative hand-sculpted Picasso-like clay faces covered in cloth adore a patient’s room. And the imagery goes even deeper. Coming home after a conference, the well-to-do Dr. Legard makes his way calmly past the Venus, around a corner and into his bedroom, which is decorated with large television screens that capture a backside nude view of his patient Vera (Elena Anaya), positioned as though she were the painting.
But, always working to create suspense, Almodóvar destroys beauty just as swiftly as he creates it. Finding that Vera has mutilated herself and attempted suicide, Ledgard rushes her to his basement operating room, where we learn of the transgenic skin alluded to in the film’s title. As is further explained at a subsequent scientific conference, Ledgard had mutated the cells that comprise human skin by transferring genetic information from a pig cell, making it much tougher. And it’s with this skin that he uses to repair Vera’s self-inflicted wounds. But Ledgard’s ‘artificial skin’—named Gal named after his late wife who died due to burns suffered in a car accident—crosses ethical lines and his research is officially suspended by the president of the scientific community.
Disheartened but not defeated, Legard finds solace in clandestinely continuing his work, and his opium, which he also administers to his patient to produce drug-induced amnesia (a later scene captures Vera’s ironic reminder—“opium helps me forget”—written compulsively along with other thought fragments such as the abovementioned Bourgeois quote on her bedroom wall). A sexually charged encounter with Vera follows, making it clear that she is trying to lure Ledgard into a state of vulnerability. Before we can ask why Vera would have attempted suicide or want to fool Dr. Ledgard, though, Almodóvar interrupts the aesthetic of the film as well as its storyline with the introduction of Zeca (Roberto Alamo). Having drunkenly made his way to Toledo from Madrid’s Carnival—staggering stupidly the entire way—, Zeca arrives at El Cigarral still adoring his carnival tiger outfit and in search of his mother. And his presence enriches the film with a sense of coherent absurdity; while he is visually comical, he ties much of the complicated story together. After pleading with housekeeper Marilia (Marisa Paredes) to let him in through the intercom, we learn that Zeca is indeed Marilia’s son and is on the run from a failed jewelry store heist.
Following his animal instinct, Zeca soon discovers Vera. Then, Dr. Ledgard discovers Zeca raping Vera. And after a fatal confrontation between the two, Marilia consoles Vera and tells her that it was Zeca who was responsible for Gal’s accident. She also explains that while Robert rescued her that night, thus beginning his obsession with developing an artificial skin, he eventually lost her. But once again, just as we start to put pieces together, Almodóvar again plays with structure.
Going back 6 years to the wedding of a family friend, we find Robert and his daughter Norma some years after Gal’s passing. Norma disappears from the celebration with a group of friends and Vicente (Jan Cornet). When Ledgard notices her absence, he heads out to look for her only to find her shoes strewn along a path. They lead him to the garden where she had been with Vicente. She’s unconscious. Having seen Vicente flee from the scene of the crime at the wedding, Robert heads out in revenge of his now hospitalized daughter and late wife and takes Vicente hostage. Providing Robert with unneeded motivation, Norma takes her life in the same fashion as did her mother (having woken to her father holding her in the garden, she was convinced that he had raped and could no longer stand to live with the thought). Robert assembles a team to perform a life-changing survey on Vicente—one that would completely alter his identity forever.
In the end, the sexual violence of La Piel que Habito will be too off-putting for some, but regardless of its ravishment, it is indisputably rich in cinematography and structure. And there are many surprises—both amorous and revengeful—that leave us with a strange sense of resolution but still many questions.
Almodóvar is a master of symbolism and subtlety and themes are beautifully overlaid and interwoven. The music of Concha Buika, for instance, who performs at the wedding where Norma is raped, sings the same song (Por el Amor de Amar) that Norma was singing at the time of her mother’s passing—and, furthermore, there is even subtle interplay between Buika’s voice and that of Norma as a young girl. Similarly, there is a subtly shot scene early in the film that catches a wire bust of woman’s profile used for displaying hats in a clothing store where Vicente worked in the foreground and Vicente’s profile in the background. Furthermore, Banderas is coldly convincing; Ledgard’s meticulousness is equaled only by his malevolence and his strive to reach the higher plain of art through perfection and science is haunting. Lastly, the choice to quote Louise Joséphine Bourgeois (again captured on Vera’s wall), who was a lifelong advocate of LGBT equality speaks to the fact that Almodovar was serious is addressing identity through sexuality. La Piel que Habito is a vibrant example that there is no one making movies like Almodóvar and that art is alive and certainly in good health.