Showcase: All About Mothers

Let’s begin with the father. Robert Ledgard, the protagonist of Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In, a plastic surgeon with godlike gifts, is struck by twin tragedies. His wife dies. Then his psychically scarred daughter, Norma, is institutionalised. After a visit to see his child, when she slinks into a closet and shuts the door on him, he tells her doctor that he’d like to see her in something other than a hospital gown. The physician replies, in the movie’s drollest moment, that Norma cannot stand any kind of fitted clothing – and the film’s title flashes before our eyes. Norma, in other words, cannot stand to be in her own skin, the one she lives in, the ne plus ultra of “fitted clothing.” When she dies, Ledgard is determined to recreate the objects of his desire and avenge himself on the person he holds responsible for his plight. The film’s most touching (and chilling) scene may be the one where Almodóvar grafts these mutually conflicting urges – to venerate and to violate – onto a single instance of rape and murder, after which the victim, Vera, throws herself into Ledgard’s arms, dangling in his embrace like a rag doll.

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Or a puppet. Vera, in the present, is Ledgard’s sole patient, imprisoned in a windowless room and monitored round the clock while he manipulates her like how a filmmaker might mould his actors. He tests on her his latest creation, a burn-proof epidermis he labels Gal. That’s the name of the wife he lost to flames in an accident, but it could also be short for Galatea, the statue that Pygmalion sculpted and subsequently surrendered his heart to. Ledgard’s efforts to create and control new life also suggest the id-prototype of Pygmalion, the original mad scientist, Victor Frankenstein, and thus the landscape of Almodóvar’s film – a coiled horror-thriller built from the DNA of Vertigo, Eyes Without a Face and the director’s own Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! – gets booby-trapped with existential interrogation. Is Ledgard, like Pygmalion, simply a besotted lover? Or is he, like Frankenstein, a modern Prometheus, a hubristic human barging into the realm of gods? And is science still science when it’s less about serving humanity than coddling the self?

Who is Vera? Why is Ledgard’s love for her so monstrously unsettling? And what have they to do with a young man who’s a dressmaker, another creator of “fitted clothing”? These labyrinthine discursions of plot, once unwound, stake fewer claims on our attentions than the questions we are left with at the end, questions about identity, the hawk-like hold of the past on our present, the porousness of sexual desire, the extent one should be allowed to lose oneself in love, the vaporous wall between voyeurism and obsession, and whether women are really better beings than men. Has there been another filmmaker whose oeuvre is such a shrine to mothers and the maternal? Even when Almodóvar’s protagonists are male, they are governed by the instincts to nurture (Talk to Her), to create (Bad Education, Broken Embraces), and to give birth, as Ledgard does to Vera. It is women, Almodóvar suggests over and over, who unceasingly pull us back from the verge of nervous breakdowns.

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

Copyright ©2012 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

12 thoughts on “Showcase: All About Mothers

  1. Wow, did this get a release in Chennai?

    Terrific review, but I would disagree with the final couple of lines. Sure PA’s films have got a lot of mothers and mother-like figures, but he’s the kind of filmmaker who does not buy into any kind of essentialism about men and women. If anything, he’s kept on suggesting that there’s simply no stable boundary between both and that sexual identity is also a kind of performance, a Pavlovian response.

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  2. My favourite film last year. Personally rejoiced that he made a well made film again. (Didn’t like Broken Embraces much). The crucial scene in the film played in flashback was terrific – Almodovar in superb control.

    What did you think about the “Tiger” scenes? If there is something that I don’t understand in the film or not able to connect a dot, it should be that one.

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  3. This and then…Arthur Christmas. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy came in between no? Was expecting a review. Guessing you were busy with the festival then

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  4. JAFB: “he’s kept on suggesting that there’s simply no stable boundary between both and that sexual identity” True. And I wasn’t stating otherwise, just talking about the “shrine to mothers and the maternal” aspect. That isn’t necessarily a rejection of the other gender.

    Aravindan: Well, the way I saw it, the tiger was another guy in “fitted clothing” right? Just that his “skin” was an animal’s, like he was. I thought the character, with his animal behaviour, messed up the order of the Ledgard’s universe.

    Gradwolf: Was out of town when Tinker Tailor came in. Someone else reviewed it. And it slunk away before I could catch it. And this weekend, there’s… Coriolanus? I’m still rubbing my eyes. Also, how come more accessible stuff like Hugo and Help and Moneyball have passed us by, when this film is making it?

    vikram: Yeah, this new column (to which I contribute on and off) should help get a quasi-Part of the Picture going. I hope.

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  5. BR, MONEYBALL *did* release in India, sometime in October. Fled without a notice.

    BTW, been wanting to ask this, where does one get reliable information on upcoming Hollywood/Bollywood movies in India? None of the Indian sites I know are consistent.

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  6. JAFB: О, я знаю. Я говорил, что он не делал это в Ченнаи. Просто дает вам вкус собственной сэр медицины. ногами пыль сэр. Злая усмешка.

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  7. BR: Yep, Moneyball won’t come I guess. Hugo and War Horse, with big names backing, I wonder why they aren’t here yet. And what is this Russian?!

    JAFB: I thought they showed Moneyball only at Mumbai Film Festival. I don’t think it had a proper mainstream release.

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  8. This does not seem to have been written by Mr. Rangan – nicely written though it may be, it is not up to the calibre of his usual musings. Eloquence usually doesn’t wither on your tongue, sir – this is almost deviating to the apathetic writings standards of T. Aadarsh (sans all the inane alliterations).

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