The Skin I Live in, by Pedro Almodóvar

Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film, The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito) is a fine, elegant horror “without any blood”, as the director himself defines it. The plot, loosely based on Thierry Jonquet’s novel Mygale, tells the story of plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard, who is looking for revenge whilst also developing a new type of pain-, fire- and mosquito-resistant skin. In the story, Robert’s wife passes away after a terrible car crash that burnt her whole body, which is the main reason why he embarks in his new skin studies. Parallel to that, the audience is shown that the surgeon’s estate/plastic surgery clinic is also a prison for young patient Vera Cruz. As the story unravels through a compelling (if somewhat unsettling) series of flashbacks, typical of Almodóvar’s style, the viewer discovers the horrifying plot, tassel by tassel. The main topics of this work being grief and cold-blooded vendetta, The Skin I live In digs into the main characters’ backgrounds, psyche and dysfunctional behaviours, to the point of guiding the audience into their psyche to deeply understand (although not agree with!) their actions.

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All the classic Almodóvar themes can be found in his latest venture: in this film hospitals play an important part representing a reassuring prison; the wealth and opulent residence and belongings of the characters, who generally have mental issues, the unconventional domesticity and the dramatic staircase scenes are also to be counted among those reoccurring patterns, present in the movie, that the director chooses to use regularly. Betrayal, the exploration of male desire, dark comedy paired to tragedy and a clinical, unapologetic approach and critic to delicate social issues are other main themes chosen to be part of this masterpiece.

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Almodóvar plays very cleverly with our minds just like Robert plays with Vera’s by adding several motifs throughout the film’s 117 minutes. The scene where Vincente, a shop assistant, dresses a mannequin sexualising the object is mirrored by the same character, later on in the story, having an encounter with a girl whom he treats like an objectified prey. The theme of clothing and, more in general, cloth, is also very strong and symbolises something merely disposable – both skin and clothes, in fact, are cut in small parts or placed together like patchwork. The way Robert moulds his victim’s body is also represented by the way the victim creates gauze-covered sculptures. The victim owns the sculpture and is owned by Robert.

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Unfortunately, the subtlety of the original title’s word play was lost in translation. Despite the awkward sound of the phrase ‘the skin I inhabit’, I think this would have been a better translation for the title. The original Spanish title sounds also unnatural, and the word ‘inhabit’ holds in itself the word ‘habit’, which reminds us of clothes and material, very important elements of the film, as we have discussed. Moreover, ‘inhabit’ gives an even stronger sense of distance. The character does not live in their own skin, but rather, in someone else’s skin and, as an extent, someone else’s image and identity. This word makes us understand that the person who inhabits that skin takes on the given role like a played character, wears it as a uniform and ultimately decides to move from victim to conscious and active betrayer, with a final scope in mind.Marilia, Robert’s servant, also wears a uniform, and when she returns to work for him after years, she is happy to wear it again. This shows us how the surgeon has a great captivating power on people and just how happy they are to preserve normality and adhere to their subdued, subjugated roles.

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Much importance was given to the clothes during the planning and production stages, so much so that Jean-Paul Gaultier worked side by side with the film’s costume designer, Paco Delgado. The choice couldn’t have been more appropriate, with the fashion designer’s clean and minimal lines. The zips and the cut-out, circular breast seams add a kinky theme to it all, which perfectly suits the tone and motifs of the movie.

In a few words, Almodóvar’s wonderful latest work can be described as horror comedy, dark, unconventional, fetishistic, funnily awkward, straight to the point, technically perfect and definitely unexpected. I strongly recommend you go and see it, you will not regret it!

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