Homopiece Theater Presents: The Skin I Live In

Dear Autostraddlers, I wanted this review to be a gushing love letter to the wonder that is Pedro Almodovar. As a Latina writer director film nerd, I was excited to watch his latest work The Skin I Live In (La Piel Que Habito). He’s my favorite director, Latino, and a homo too! He directed Penelope Cruz to brilliance in Volver and I expected him to do the same with Antonio Banderas. Which he did, but… it’s complicated.

First and foremost: this movie was full of sexual violence, with an extended rape scene plus one more scene that’s clearly nonconsensual. So, two rape scenes. It just made me think of  Carmen’s article about consent. Consent never happens in this movie, and honestly it’s just dripping with violence against women. But — and yes, there’s a but — in typical Almodovar fashion, he redeems himself with a twist. A twist so bizarre that it fucked up my whole world, which is what amazing movies do.

The Skin I Live In stars Antonio Banderas as Dr. Robert Ledgard, a super skilled and super unscrupulous plastic surgeon. Dr. Ledgard is obsessed with creating the perfect skin, skin that won’t be affected by scrapes, bumps and more specifically, burns. Because, duh, Dr. Ledgard is a broken man who lost his wife and his daughter to (among other things) a devastating fire. Antonio Banderas is frightening in his portrayal of a damaged man trying to recreate what he has lost the only way he knows how: plastic surgery. Banderas slices into his victims with such a stoic moral authority that the foundation of morality itself is thrown into question. Although there’s also, you know, the woman and unwilling patient — played by Elena Anaya, who is so gut-wrenchingly beautiful and talented everyone else should just quit trying –  imprisoned in his home, which is pretty clearly wrong. This is where the movie turns into Hostel for culture and film buffs. The Skin I Live In is the perfect grown up horror movie. What it lacks in fake blood and zombies, it more than makes up for in human monsters. You know, the type that kidnap people and perform experiments on their bodies to further their own insane research.

For instance, there’s the male victim Dr. Ledgard tortures with a non-consensual vaginoplasty. Almodovar is known for his love of women in films like Volver and Talk to Her (although it’s not like he shies away from sexual violence in those either!), and is pretty comfortable fucking with gender and identity in Bad Education. But in The Skin I Live In it’s kind of a return to more mainstream Hollywood values — really, the worst thing that can happen to a man is being “turned into a woman?” Under normal circumstances, I’d be annoyed that any director was even going there. But the Almodovar twist is that the man being surgically feminized doesn’t know what’s happening or why it’s being done to him — he’s an accidental rapist, and while to Ledgard it’s a symbolic act, to him it’s meaningless violence. Somehow, it works — at least for me. (Although, warning, the filming of this surgical procedure is on some straight up Saw/Hostel shit.)

Banderas settles into the dark character of Dr. Ledgard with a stillness and apparent ease that gave me the chills; Ledgard is horrifyingly comfortable with his work. The whole scene raised a lot of questions for me regarding trans individuals… if I had undergone SRS and/or was an MTF trans person, and saw the surgery often associated with my identity depicted as an act of violence, how would I feel? Would I feel violated that someone took so personal part of my community’s experience and turned it into a chop ‘em up sequence for intellectuals and film buffs? Almodovar leaves the audience without an easy place to rest.

But I don’t want to forget that there is one moment of pure bliss in The Skin I Live In. Concha Buika, a Spanish Flamenco singer, takes center stage as the entertainment at a wedding attended by Dr. Robert Ledgard and his daughter. Buika’s raspy bolero voice burns with the kind of dramatic flair (in my opinion) only Spanish singers can convey. Her voice carries the despair of the women in the film who are unable to speak for themselves.  It’s as if she is the only woman in the film allowed to sing the story of her agony — of everyone’s, really.

Almodovar’s characters have always used punishment as a means to right the universe’s wrongs; The Skin I Live In is no exception. The rapists get fucked. Dr. Ledgard gets fucked. We’re left with a sick feeling, and the knowledge that no bad deed is left unpunished.  I left the movie theater wondering if it was worth it. Were the manhandling of women’s bodies, grossly aggressive sex scenes and ass-in-the-air pistoning rape scenes worth the twists and skill of Almodovar’s storytelling? I still can’t answer that.

Rating System for Homopiece Theater

1-5 Unicorns for positive elements

1-5 Glitterbombs for negative elements

I give it 3 Unicorns for score, cinematography and acting, and 2 Glitterbombs for rape scenes and “fucked up evil man stuff” (a technical term) which culminates in a basically in a mixed bag. If you love film, especially films with Spanish subtitles by Latin American genius directors, then hell yeah watch The Skin I Live In. But if you’re just a chick looking for a good chill movie… this isn’t it.

Avatar of gabrielle

Gabrielle Rivera is an awesomely queer Bronx bred, writer, spoken word artist and director. Her short stories and poems have been published in various anthologies such as the Lambda Award winning Portland Queer: Tales from the Rose City and The Best of Panic! En Vivo from the East Village. Her short film "Spanish Girls are Beautiful" follows a group of young Latina and Caucasian girls who like girls as they hook up, smoke up and try to figure sh*t out. She also freelances for Autostraddle.com while working in the film and television industry. Gabrielle is currently working on her first novel while bouncing around NYC performing spoken word and trying to stick it to the man.

gabrielle has written 68 articles for us.

24 Comments

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    For me, while it definitely had some strong sexual violence, the film was so much more about identity (hence the prevalence of the identity-obsessed artist Louise Bourgeois). What was interesting is that after Dr. Legard was finished with him, Vincente was forced to live in a body he did not identify with. He was a prisoner in his own body, for the rape (?) of Dr. Legard’s daughter.

    What I got from the movie, more than just the sexual violence, which in Almodovar’s movie never comes across as gratuitous (rather I see it as his way of shining a light on the consistent oppression of women), was that identity is complicated.

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    Saw it last week and it was, as usual, amazing. At moments I was laughing while simultaneously very disturbed, one of my favorite theatrically/cinematically-induced sensations (perfected by David Lynch).

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    TW for transmisogynistic views against surgery

    You ask whether portraying life-saving procedures as torture might leave trans viewers feeling violated. I think it goes much further. This portrayal needs to be seen in the context of other representations of the surgeries needed by (many) trans women: they are largely portrayed as mutilation, as something which harms, turning the person into a monster, becoming something ‘created’ by surgery. Occasionally there are documentaries etc which do not portray it this way, but even then, they rarely reveal the reasons why such surgeries can be so healing – i.e. ending the sheer physical dissonance which many suffer. (Dissonance 101: http://genderbitch.wordpress.com/2009/09/22/for-the-uninformed-dysphoria/)

    If the world were generally as approving of transfeminine surgeries as any other life-improving procedure, then this film might only feel violating. As it is, it contributes to the deep cissexism and transmisogyny of our society.

    (Please, someone who has experience of anti-surgery bigotry comment?)

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        This is from the end of my review of the film:

        I’ve seen a lot of concerns about ruining “the surprise” or “the twist” in the film. Personally, I refuse to accept the marketing of the film which would include the salacious idea of “the beautiful girl is really a dude.” Too many trans women’s identities have been disrespected in films this way. Too many rapes of trans women have been disregarded because of the “she’s really a dude” excuse (as thought someone born in a male-assigned body can’t be raped??) I would like to encourage queer and trans people to purposely spread “the Twist” to this film. Trans surgeries or identities are not about fooling the viewer, for shock/sleeze entertainment or titillation.

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          So i guess I’m a little confused. I agree with your comment below that this movie is not about a trans person whatsoever. But I do think the surgery or rather the circumstances around it were a huge part of the story, which is why I feel the disclosure “spoiled” a major plot line.. does that make sense? I hope this doesn’t come off aggressively, I’m just trying to understand why you think the twist should be disclosed and how its offensive (not sure if thats the right word) to trans individuals, since we both seem to agree that its not about being trans. Could you elaborate a little more? Thanks! :)

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          Sure, I understand the confusion. The film is not about a trans woman… it’s about a man who was surgically altered in multiple ways against his will. But the device they’re using for the “Twist” is one that’s been used against trans women’s identities in media for years… the chick is really a dude! No, there is no tell-tale penis reveal (AKA “The Crying Game” schtick) but it totally plays with a lot of the tropes used against trans women to create creepiness, sexual unease of hetero-normative audiences and some element of “what you see isn’t what you get.” I’ve already seen several reviewers question the rape scene and ask “did the rapist know they were really raping a man?” (which is a strange question to ask about a rape!) Again, the character Vera is a man, but questions like that are totally applied towards trans women by law enforcement, media and in judicial settings all the time and the film plays with that. There is also a point made, a number of times in the film, about how tight Vera’s post-op pussy is which is really pretty offensive. I’ve seen this same “joke” used before about post-op trans women. So, although I generally thought it was, in sum, a problematic but good film, much of the PR, advertising and discussion around the film is heavily laced with transmisogyny. Does that make any sense?

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    Hi, I am a woman who is also trans and just wrote about the film at my blog:
    http://skipthemakeup.blogspot.com/2011/10/pedros-trans-skin.html

    Almodovar has a long history of both exploiting and yet also honoring trans women’s identities— so this film and its unease around the subject is nothing new or more mainstream. He used trans performers like Bibiana Fernandez in films like Kika and Antonia San Juan in “All About My Mother”… something few even queer directors do. But at the same time he’s always used trans women for ‘sleeze or comic factor’ in a lot of films and often given them drag personas… a too common tendency by gay male directors when dealing with trans women’s identities.

    “The Skin I Live In” is NOT about a trans woman. And I think Almodovar plays with the audience by using such a beautiful woman (Elena Anaya… who is a queer woman) in the role to not permit us to connect with the creepiness of a man being forced feminized (there’s a lot of violent porn which centers around this very topic). Vera is never a she. And, if anything, the film is a validation of the concept of Gender Identity. Vera has no internal identity as a woman, and although I don’t want to give any more spoilers about the film, Almodovar does show some of the character’s conflict about being Vincente vs. Vera. I found it all much closer to the story of David Reimer, the boy who was force feminized after a botched circumcision mostly to satisfy the curiousity of some monstrous researchers at Johns Hopkins. I found many more echoes from Intersex children or a story like Reimer’s than a trans narrative.

    To me the biggest issue I had about the film was the rape scene, which I didn’t discuss in my review because I try to focus on trans issues. And ultimately, as I wrote in my review, Almodovar’s inclusion of trans women in his films is mostly about him processing his own gender issues and insecurities, not about who trans women are or aren’t. I was moved by the film and the questions it brings up (with qualifications, esp. about the violence) and think it’s the most “Pedro-ish” film he’s made in years.

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    I very much want to see this and have been tiding myself over by watching Bad Education and Broken Embraces this week because it seems like it isn’t being shown within a thousand miles of me (seriously, do they only show independent/foreign films in NY and LA in America? If so, your country sucks). This is a really interesting review which is only stoking my curiosity/rage more!

    Without having seen it, it’s hard to assess the relevance of the violence in the film, but there are some directors I would trust to use it in a meaningful way. Strange as it might sound, I actually like to see violence used realistically in films, particularly if it makes me uncomfortable, because it’s an antidote to the Michael Bay-style explosions-by-numbers spectacles that anaesthetise us to its true effects.

    One last thing – Almodovar “Latin American?” He’s about as straight-up Spanish as you can get!

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    I know there’s other topics being discussed here and you just wrote a great review but I have a lot of feelings about this.. -

    Pedro Almodovar is from Spain. He’s not Latino or Latin American. It’s just like how you wouldn’t call an English person American…

    All of Almodovar’s movies are set in Spain, filmed in Spain, produced by Spanish producers, cast mostly with Spanish actors and are dripping with Spanish culture, which is present in all of his stories as much as the other issues that he usually explores.

    The bullfighter in Talk to Her, Penelope Cruz’s flamenco song in Volver, the cultural backdrop of Bad Education (the flashbacks to the boarding school days show Spain during Franco’s regime), and, in this movie the inclusion of Concha Buika, a flamenco singer (he also included flamenco singer Rosario Flores in Talk to Her), are all unmistakable parts of Spain’s rich culture and are not affected by Latin America or Latino culture.

    As a Latin American, I would love to claim Almodovar and add him to my list of “look at how awesome we are” (we really are :D)but I can’t, because he’s just not Latin! … I do feel culturally close to his movies because they’re in my native language and I can understand and appreciate all of the subtleties in the original dialogue, more than I can with English movies and obviously more than if I’m reading subtitles from French, for example. And I also feel culturally close because we are culturally close, because Spain colonized Latin America and because thousands of Spanish people migrated to Latin America to escape Franco’s regime. Because we share a language and now thousands of Latin Americans migrate to Spain to escape poverty and political unrest. Because I grew up listening to musicians from Spain and my cousin danced Flamenco and my grandparents watched the Spanish TV channel. But Almodovar is still not Latin!

    To squish 19 countries in America and one country in Europe under one term might be practical for some things but it can sometimes do a disservice to the great cultural richness and diversity that each of these places has. I like to explain to people where I am from and clarify where I am not from, not because I think one is better than the other, but because I want you to know about my country, I’m proud of it, I want you to understand how I am the way I am because of where I grew up, because of the things I saw, the traditions I celebrated and the history that shaped everyone around me. And then I want to hear about you, and what you celebrated and where you come from and why the words you use are different from mine even though we both speak Spanish and share a border, and how we’re all so different and so similar at the same time…
    And Almodovar is just so Spanish, just so so so SOOOOOOOOOOOOOO Spanish!! And to call him something else is not just incorrect but takes the attention away from the genius way that he handles his country and his culture in his art.

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    Yup Almodivar is from Spain and I’m from Puerto Rico. Two totally different places that speak different dialects/forms of the same language. I do use Latino as a blanket term and if it offended anyone, I apologize. It’s important to respect all of our very specific and diverse cultures.
    My bad y’all :)

    Also RE: the twist…in simple terms I just thought the twist of who was actually being imprisoned was the crazy thing…
    and that a mad scientist surgeon was like making it all possible

    But I really dig the serious discussion on trans presentation in media. Keep it coming :)

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    Oh wow. This is exactly the kind of movie I cannot see. I can’t watch any kind of sexual violence without wanting to throw up. It makes me feel a kind of primal terror. All the violence mentioned here made me feel physically sick, though I’m not complaining. I mean, I read it. It’s on me. But yeah, I won’t be watching this movie. :/

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