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.
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.
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