La piel que habito
Bodily transformations, body beyond the symbolic and the abject body have been the key themes in Pedro Almodóvar’s oeuvre. Ever since his early steps during the Spanish transition, Almodóvar has provoked audiences by transgressing the whole, unified body and binary sexes in his films. In his latest film to date, La piel que habito, however, he goes even further by linking the body with the connotations of body horror and the monstrous body. The story of La piel que habito revolves around a renowned and affluent plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard. Having lost his wife in a disturbing aftermath of a car accident, Robert is developing a skin that is stronger and will be resistant for example to fire and mosquito bites. Living with his maid Marilia, his mansion is surrounded by video cameras and closed doors. In addition to his ethically questionable skin project this secrecy is necessary as Robert is experimenting on the body of young and beautiful Vera. Things are not what they may seem, since Vera is biologically male, Viscente, captured by Ledgard six years ago. Vera’s subjection to Ledgard’s experiments is fuelled by personal revenge. Viscente and Robert were guests at a wedding at which Robert took his mentally unstable daughter Norma. When Viscente and Norma went outside and started to have sex, Norma panicked and shocked Viscente silenced her terrible scream by hitting her. Found by her father Robert in the garden Norma believes he raped her. This causes her mental deterioration leading into her suicide. After capturing Viscente, Roberto castrates him and starts a long process of Viscente’s corporeal feminisation. However, as the story unfolds it becomes clear that Ledgard is operating Vera to resemble his deceased wife, through which the question of revenge gains new meanings.
Taking into account the multiple object-subject relations, this article looks at the concept of bodily subjugation and bodies on display through concepts of dominance, gaze and voyeurism. It also looks at the excessive corporeal transformations represented in the film, the representations of the fragmented and the abject body. Through these, the article tries to examine the difference between identity and material body. Taking into consideration the macabre theme of La piel que habito, the film is looked through the concept of post-classical body horror, and how the film embraces this concept both thematically as well as visually. As according to Reviriego in Almodóvar’s films the plastic aesthetic quality is completely decisive in relation to the narrative development (Reviriego, 2009, p.14), this article looks how the mise-en-scène and cinematic techniques border these issues within the research scope. As Vera/Viscente is a highly ambiguous character, for the sake of clarity, the character is called Vera and identified with a female pronoun when incarnating the female form, and vice versa.
Taken the character relations, the assembly of subject – object forms the kernel of the film. Although this is highly seen in physical terms, it is also enforced through the dominance of the visual, namely through voyeurism and scopophilia. Within the first twenty minutes the characters are introduced through the juxtaposition of the subject of the look and the visible, and the object of that look. This echoes the initial power relations between the characters. The opening establishing shot of the city of Toledo with its important, archaic buildings changes into a close-up shot of Robert’s affluent mansion’s iron gates, window bars and modern alarm system. The mansion is covered with surveillance cameras and the materiality of the house echoes the idea of voyeurism. Robert’s private operation room is made of glass, this transparency highlighting the idea of body on display. Vera’s room is monitored and projected into various tiny black-and-white screen in the kitchen and then to a wall-sized colour screen in Robert’s bedroom for his private observation. Thus, Robert is associated with the private, the surveillance and hence voyeurism. Even the name of his mansion, Cigarral, meaning a house on the outskirts of Toledo with views over the city conveys a sense of omnipotent look over the people down in the city. Vera, on the other hand, appears first time on screen in a hazy shot where merely her figure is shown behind a frost-glass window with bars. This changes into a shot of a surveillance camera on her wall, followed by a tilting shot downwards to show Vera doing yoga, the director’s camera lingering on her body. Soon after that she is seen in the middle of the frame, in a perfect symmetrical harmony, the shot mirroring her proportioned body. Even before Vera and Robert occupy the same physical space together, they are simultaneously seen in a shot where he is gazing at her from his massive private screen. She lies naked, her back facing the camera and Robert contemplates her body, filmed in a close-up. She is the image, the object of the diegetic look.
However, Vera is very conscious of Robert’s gaze. She looks straight at the camera, towards Robert and assures verbally her knowledge that he is watching her. Thus, if Robert sees the screen as a classical cinema screen that “portray a hermetically sealed world which unwinds magically, indifferent to the presence of the audience, producing for them a sense of separation and playing on their voyeuristic fantasy” (Mulvey, 2000, p.37), little by little Vera starts to subvert this visual position. Through her gaze back looking straight into the camera she makes Robert uncomfortable and undermines his master position. Furthermore, although the various surveillance cameras enable Robert’s obsession with the visual mastery, as Bradshaw has stated, Robert’s home-entertainment system “is more torture than entertainment, but which holds him speechless, captivated by the obscene spectacle he himself has created” (2011). Vera already acts as an ocular surrogate to the absent dead wife Gal while at the same time this mere visual presence makes Gal even more absent. Additionally, through Vera’s virtual presence on screen the question of being and not being becomes one of the focal points, causing torture to Robert; although physically present in his life, by constantly being the image on the monitor screen points even further to this void; present but absent. Castro de Paz has called this as “desolate shadows of lost” (2012, p.50), referring to Almodóvar’s two recent films La piel que habito and Los abrazos rotos (2009). In both films Almodóvar tackles the “psychological consequences of the symbolic blindness”, where the lost is immediate and the memory of the lost loved one is only accessible through film (Castro de Paz, 2012, p.50; my translation).
In addition to the visual, Robert is objectifying and mastering Vera in extremely physical level. As the film’s title alludes, the film is much about the body in which we live, but it also connotes to the skin as separate from the “I”, the self. The fluidity of human body is highlighted through Robert’s profession and experiments on Vera. As French states, the film’s title “takes its central character’s profession and turns it into a metaphor for our bodies, our identities, our perceptions of ourselves” (French, 2011). Placing the story within a private hospital environment is a self-conscious act. As Marcantonio has stated in relation to Hable con ella (2002) a hospital is a place “where the fact that one is a body is inescapable” (2007, p.22). Almodóvar has already tackled in various occasions the idea of body in transition. This is seen for example through gender play and plastic surgery, through the comatose body between dead and alive as in Hable con ella and pretty viscerally through transplants, as perhaps best exemplified in Todo sobre mi madre (1999) where a heart of a character travels to a body of another patient. As Prout has noted “[T]he hospital, and the fascination with patient intervention has been a concern of Almodóvar from the outset of his commercial works: doctors, hospital wards, and physiological transformation coded as gender reassignment have been constant in his oeuvre” (Prout, 2004, p.47). As Méjean writes, in Almodóvar’s world one can become someone else while not abandoning being oneself. Women and men are merely two sides that are irremediably inseparable and the question of sexual identity gains mystic qualities in his oeuvre. His universe transcends both sex and identity (Méjean, 2007, pp.113-114, 117-118).
Although in La piel que habito the body is in a complete transition, however, it is in a state of destruction, approximating the ideas of body horror. Creed has pointed out how “representations of the body in contemporary horror are primarily concerned with the materiality of the body and the visual display of its destruction” (1995, p.128). Through the central image of this transforming body, the main symbolic function of the horror genre “is to challenge definitions of what it means to be human” (Creed, 1995, p.137). Vera borders this question of humanness. Her body is between dead and alive, genetically created and deficit of senses. Additionally, she physically reincarnates a dead person. Thus her metamorphosing, transforming body is a grotesque body, echoing Creed’s argument that the horror body is best exemplified by Bakhtin’s notion of ‘grotesque body’, since the grotesque body is “always on a process of change and alteration” (Creed, 1995, p.136). Vera is a dismembered body par excellence, and the various shots of her corporeal materiality fragment the body into particles and juxtapose the idea of a unified, whole body. The first time Robert is introduced he is holding a medical conference while images behind him shows human face taken into pieces and then connected to another person. Vera’s skin is a patchwork of little pieces of modified skin, full of marks separating one patch from another. This dismembered, non-unified body is also evoked by Vera’s handmade figurines that are made of shreds of disparate fabrics. As Creed states,
“Images of bodily dismemberment fracture our sense of bodily unity and, by extension, of the self as a coherent whole. Images of bodily dismemberment represent a particularly strong expression of the abject. Such images also point to the contemporary horror film’s desire to explore all forms of material transgression, in succumbing to the lure of abjection and the pleasures of perversity” (Creed, 1995, p.145).
La piel que habito is a film with visceral images of bodily fluids and residues and thus the film highlights the materiality of the human body. Within the first 15 minutes the film shows blood, tears, and fluids that are used to create a modified human body, as seen in abundance in Robert’s private laboratory. Later on, feminine fluids are highlighted, through Vera’s purchase of lubricants, artificial as her own femininity. She is even controlled in terms of what goes in her body, since in the first minutes of the film Marilia is preparing Vera’s medical fluids in a close-up, arguably used to modify her look. Robert purchases blood and other fluids, putting those on a par with other consumer goods to be acquired and used. The camera lingers meticulously on the skin that Robert is preparing, putting the modified skin Vera will carry into an extreme proximity. Through this elaboration and editing of images, Vera’s body is seen as traces of blood, scum, transgenetics. Her ambiguous body is outside the Symbolic order, breaking the taboo of the clean and socially sanctioned body. The abject establishes the line separating us from the animal territories (Kristeva, 1982, pp. 12-13). However, the skin Vera carries is made by transferring information from a pig cell to a human cell. Her skin also smells different, as Robert states, pointing to a monstrous abjection. This abject materiality of smell is highlighted by Gal’s burnt skin. As Marilia tells Vera, Robert “was intoxicated by the smell of burnt flesh” and compares Gal’s living monstrous body to a cinder. Cinder is the residue, the burnt material, on the verge to extinguish. Kristeva has argued that abject is the excess that reminds of the death, the filth that the body extricates in order to live (Kristeva, 1982, p. 3). As she continues “[T]hese body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death” (Kristeva, 1982, p.3). Vera’s body is beyond the limit. However, it is not the dirty body per se that makes Vera an abject, but her transgressing body. As Kristeva highlighs it is not “lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite” (1982, p.4).Vera’s body breaks the system governing clear cut generic limits, the line between human and animals, and rules of natural, whole body.
While Roberts constructs Vera’s body, at the same time he deconstructs the masculine, biological body. This duality of deconstruction and re-construction causes high uneasiness in the film. The anxiety also emerges through ethical issues questioning what is permitted in the field of human construction and science. Robert’s medical colleagues are against the steps towards modified skin, but as Robert states we are already living in a world where everything surrounding us is modified. Thus the anxiety towards genetic science becomes a subjective question, addressing the spectators directly and the fears of their bodies. Creed has argued, citing Brophy, that in the contemporary horror film it is not the fear of Death that causes the main anxiety, but “’the fear of one’s own body, of how one controls and relates to it’” (Creed, 1995, p.128). In the same way Boss sees that in the contemporary horror the identity is reduced to the corporeal, where the body equals as self (cited in Creed, 1995, p.128). The anxiety is evoked by reminding that our body is material and thus destroyable, as Gal’s burning skin and Vera’s modified appearance. In this way Robert’s complete dominance of Viscente/Vera’s body demonstrates a primal fear of corporeal usurpation and subject’s impossibility to control own body.
If the skin as a material entity is separate to the “I”, as the title alludes, the film questions the effects of our physical transformations to our identity. As Creed argues in relation to body horror, although “the monstrous body of horror may appear to be only flesh, bones, and sinew (…), the destruction of the physical body is used as a metaphor to point to the possibility that the self is also transitory, fragile, and fragmented” (Creed, 1995, p.143). These preoccupations are constant in Almodóvar’s oeuvre, where the fluidity of self and sexual identity are focal points. However, this seems to be the only Almodóvar film where transsexuality is not a positive, emancipating choice. Vera’s transformation is in complete opposition to Almodóvar’s another character, Agrado, a biological male who is (partly) operated to female in Todo sobre mi madre. Her famous quote from that film is that “A person is the most authentic the more one resembles what one have dreamed of being”. Agrado is transformed in order her outer appearance to match her identity, whereas Viscente has no choice but to take on the female body. By castrating and mutilating Viscente’s outer image Robert tries to fetter Viscente’s self image and identity, making his vendetta extremely cruel.
This idea of hampering one’s self-image is also manifested on the linguistic level. By re-naming Viscente to Vera Robert undermines Viscente’s identity. It could be argued that the new name chosen by Robert comes from the verb ‘to see’, ‘to observe’ (ver in Spanish, verá in the future tense). ‘Ver’ is also a substantive meaning appearance or external aspect and sight. Thus, arguably her name alludes to how she is seen by others, especially from Robert’s viewpoint but also how she will perceive herself, and take on the new female identity. Almodóvar films the three key moments when Vera sees her new body in a succession of scenes. This is first seen when the genitals are operated and Viscente looks at those, although nothing is shown to the spectator. Silently shocked, Viscente murmurs what else Robert is going to do to which he answers that “you will see when the moment comes” (‘ya verás’). This scene ends merging with the next scene, when Viscente’s face is superimposed with Vera’s face, showing the passage of time. The camera shows how Vera sees her new breasted body. Crucially, she attacks Robert, tries to escape and by not being able to do so, she cuts her throat. This again changes into a scene when the bandage covering her face is removed, the title ‘a few weeks later’ again indicating the passage of time. As the first words Robert expresses in the film ‘Our face identifies us’, the deprivation of own mirror image causes high anxiety. Vera’s reaction is to maniacally destroy the feminine clothes Robert has placed on her bed. As the spectators learn in the course of the film, there is an utter resemblance to Robert’s deceased wife Gal, although she is only seen in flashbacks after the brutal accident, her face all destroyed by fire. Crucially, Gal killed herself after seeing a reflection of her image, highlighting the importance appearance has to our self-image. Noting the passage of time and the extent of Robert’s meticulous construction, this succession of the scenes where Vera sees her new body also shows the gradual psychological process she has to take and through which she will slowly gain the mastery of her own, albeit new body.
In addition to the physical and linguistic mutilation, through the forced costumes, Robert is hampering Vera’s self image. Connoting the title of the film, the tight, nude-like costume Vera wears in many scenes blurs the line between the skin and an artificial adornment. While the skin-like costume emphasizes Vera’s perfect, made-to-measure body, it functions almost as an extension of the physical body. The nude costume was designed by Jean Paul Gaultier whose designs were already used in Almodóvar’s Kika (1993). In that film Gaultier’s hyperfeminine creations’ mere intention was to use “costume to impose rather than reflect meaning built up within the characters and narration” given that his designs are “deliberately intrusive, and thus instrumental in defining the spectator’s response to a film” (Bruzzi,1997, p.10). In contrast, in La piel que habito the costume leaves space for reflection and contemplation. Vera’s nude costume makes her tabula rasa. Although Bruzzi states that haute couture and designs by couturiers points to “the use of clothes as spectacle and mechanisms for display” (Bruzzi, 1997, p.3), in La piel que habito Gautier’s simple nude costume encourages for display by highlighting the human body. It flaunts exhibitionism but at the same time concealment by showing nothing. Thus, if the costume evokes look-at-ness, it also simultaneously denies it. As by renaming Vera, by making her a blank slate Robert intents to remove any traces of her identity. He even describes one of the black tight costumes as a second skin that will mould her body, and arguably, he is hoping also that to mould Vera’s identity.
However, despite the complete external mutilation and castration of Vicente’s masculine body, Vera/Viscente seems to identify with the masculine identity throughout. She wants to exist as Viscente, and thus she starts writing on the blank walls. As Samuels has written, Western tradition favours speech over writing. However, turning to Derrida (1976) he states that “writing becomes a ‘deadly supplement’ that represents the artificiality of the language and human culture. Part of this fear of writing can be connected to the fact that, in speech, the subject has to exist in Real in order to produce discourse, but in writing, the subject of the speech is often missing or absent” (1998, pp. 30-31). By writing Vera makes Vincent present. While he is physically absent, through the written word he is psychologically present and his true self literally comes to the surface, and he is the one who reads and writes, bringing it to immediacy. Vera keeps on writing “I breathe. I know that I breathe”, placing “I” to the one that breathes, being separate to the modified skin. The soundtrack, Identidad inaccecible composed by Alberto Iglesias, additionally alludes how Viscente’s identity is inaccessible, and Robert merely has an access to the material body. This preservation of the masculine identity is clearly exemplified in the last shot of the film where Vera utters to her mother the words “I am Viscente”.
Boss argues that in the modern horror film obsessed with the destruction of the human body the visual depiction of “human tissue in torment” and “the body in profuse disarray” gains a fundamental position (cited in Creed, 1995, p.128). Crucially, in opposition to this, in La piel que habito the horror is the body modified to utter visual perfectness and this incongruity makes it even more horrifying. In this respect it is interesting to question why Robert, in vengeance, makes Viscente a woman, and even more particularly, an image of his wife Gal. It could be argued that not only as a revenge towards Viscente, Robert’s reconstruction of his deceased wife could be seen in terms of getting rid of his guilt and to fill the absence, but also, to master her. In this vein, the film can be seen as bearing resemblance to Hitchcock Vertigo. In this masterpiece the female protagonist who has been hired to take on a role of another woman “must perform and reiterate a prescripted feminine role” (Samuels, 1998, p.77) while the men in the film “seek to control and master the performance and construction of femininity” (Samuels, 1998, p. 78). Consequently, in this construction and controlling of the ideal image of a woman, Vera as a work could be pointing to sublimation, to circumventing the anxiety provoked by women, in the same way that Samuels has argued on Hitchcock’s film. Samuel writes that there is an omnipresent conflict as men simultaneously both fear and feel attracted to women (citing Horney (1973), 1998, p. 84). In sublimation this anxiety-provoking Thing is hidden by “reintroducing the object into either the Imaginary and Symbolic orders” (Samuels, 1998, p.84). Consequently, “the history of sublimation and Symbolic representation has been controlled by the masculine attempt to create ideal forms and images out of the raw material of the feminine object” (Samuels, citing Schiesari (1992), 1998, p.84). In this pursuit “men are able to keep this potentially engulfing object at a distance” (Samuels, 1998, p.84). By constructing Vera as an incarnation of his late wife enables Robert to keep ‘Gal’ locked and under his vigilance, taking into consideration how Gal ran away with another man on the night of the accident. Vera as Robert’s scientific project, or better an artwork functions as his sublimated getaway. Robert’s home inhabits massive classical paintings of naked, white-skinned women. Vera is on a par with those, a piece of Ledgard’s ingenuity, a gem of her master. Like the little wooden figure of da Vinci-esque anatomical measures used in art classes, as seen in Viscente mother’s boutique, Vera has the perfect measures. Echoing his obsession of looking, the early minutes of the film show Robert coming home, walking past a massive Danae-looking painting. He quickly gazes at the painting and this contemplative action is repeated straight after by gazing at his own creation. He turns on a massive screen that shows Vera calmly reading, in a very a paintinglike position, framed by the screen. Thus, she is the surface, the ideal image of a woman in all symmetry, but more than that, she is kept within that framed space by Robert, made unthreading to him.
However, even more radically it could be argued that Vera becomes an assuring image of a woman for Robert as she is biologically male and thus unable to reproduce. Vera’s body is highly artificial, shunning away any notions of biological, earthy female maternal body. As the film is also a maternal melodrama with macabre twists, the creation of Vera could be seeing as reflecting a kind of maternal fear. Robert was left by his mother Marilia and was then raised by her while not knowing she was his real biological mother. Also, the cause of Norma’s mental disorder comes from the absent mother, who killed herself by jumping from a window in front of Norma’s eyes. Although staying in Ledgard’s oblivion, she initially gets worse not by being raped by Viscente, but by hearing the song she was singing when her mother jumped. Motherhood is highlighted at the early minutes of the film, when the sign of a maternity hospital is emphasized, taking the whole screen space. It is the source of the illicit activities Robert is taking, since he obtains the abject material from a maternity hospital in order to create Vera’s skin. Placing this activity within that environment highly juxtaposes the artificial corporeal creation and procreation, bordering the film’s ethical questions.
As this article has showed, La piel que habito encounters the key themes and obsessions present in Almodóvar’s oeuvre, for example the quest of identity, gendered human body and its fluctuating nature, wicked perverse relations, and voyeurism. In La piel que habito the body gains a paramount position, both in visual and in narrative terms. The body is seen as something changeable, as already seen in many of the director’s earlier films. However, as this article has tried to underline La piel que habito provokes audiences not only by emphasizing the fluidity and changeability of the material body but also by tackling some ethical issues about the bodily construction and reconstruction. While questioning the limits of a physical human body the film approaches the concept of body horror. In this vein Vera’s body occupies the liminal space between sexes, between human and animal, dead and alive, being the breakdown of the rules governing our bodies. Through this, her body was categorizes as the abject in Kristeva’s terms. However, while Vera echoes the notions of body horror’s “the body of becoming, of process, of metamorphosis” (Creed, 1995, pp.148-149), this article has tried to show how this metamorphosis encompasses psychological dimensions and self-scrutiny.
In addition to the traces of horror La piel que habito has melodramatic traits, melodrama being a vital genre within Almodóvar’s oeuvre. Marcantonio has defined melodrama as “a genre described by its inclination towards embodiment, muteness, and excess” (2007, p.19). Melodramatic excess is a term coined by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith to indicate the way that the undischarged emotions are conveyed and expressed through mise-en-scène and music (Allinson, 2005, p. 231). In La piel que habito the setting highly echoes the stylistic traits of melodrama and conveys meaning. This is seen for example through the saturated vivid colours of Robert’s mansion that juxtapose the clinical colours of Vera’s room and her outfits, connoting her being as a blank clinical project while they also aim to remove historicity. Additionally the hospital setting intensifies Vera as a body, and by being a remote, private hospital this setting bears resemblance to Vera’s body as a silent, concealed text. The melodramatic muteness is tangible in the film and highlights the visual, absent relationship between the characters. Vera is the echo of the absent; a surface of an absent person that in turn makes the surface of Viscente absent. However, while Vera’s body is beyond the language, the silent act of writing in comparison to speech makes Viscente present and becomes a mode of expression.
La piel que habito is a very coherent work that points to the fragmented body not only through the narrative motifs but also through the cinematic techniques, for example through close-ups, through a shot of superimposing Viscente and Vera’s faces and fragmenting the time between past and present. The plot is highly spliced, and through this shifting backwards and forwards the film represents the characters from many different angles. This in turn may change the spectators’ initial assumption and analysis of the characters, their agendas and motivations. As this article has examined the nature of Robert’s vengeance gains new perspectives and questions who the object of this vengeance is; Viscente, Gal or woman. Robert places his trauma to the absent, mentally unstable, unreliable or dead female form, as emanating from his relation to his mother, daughter and wife. Consequently, he enacts to sublimate this fear by mutilating and objectifying the female form, making it unthreatening and passive. The reconstruction of his deceased wife is also a masochistic act for Robert and he cannot cope when the passive object turns her look towards him. Thus, it could be argued that the film shows the bleeding wound of Robert, his intimate personal scar.
This in turn raises a question who is in charge of the action in the end. Crucially, the power relations are turned upside down in the course of the film. If the two thirds of the film shows Vera’s forced metamorphosis in passive terms, in the last third she becomes the active one. If Vera was often seen as a painting, framed by the screen to Robert’s private observation, she breaks this position. The change of power is almost tangible when Vera is able to manipulate Robert and seduce him by suggesting them living together. By losing his dominance over the passive object he panics and runs to his room only to gaze Vera safely on the screen. She looks straight ‘back’ at Robert when he is at the weakest, undermining completely his control and omnipotence. However, by highlighting the material body the film does not draw on the Cartesian mind – body duality and the film does not show the mind superior to the body. The immaterial mind is the one that survives but crucially the body becomes Vera’s main asset in the end of the film. As the term ‘Frankenstein complex’ coined by Isaac Asimov to denote “the impulse by the artificial creatures to rebel against the creator by gaining conscience of the own individuality” (Alarcón, 2010, p.26; my translation,) despite all the physical and psychological torture Vera gains the command over her body. In this vein it is key to note that the film’s title addresses her as a first person subjective, making her the active force, the subject of the film. This is a film about pure embodiment, and as Vera’s constant practicing of yoga, the film conveys how embodiment is all about the interplay between the immaterial mind and the material body. In the end of the film when Vera returns to her mother’s boutique, the mental act of remembering things is connected to bodily memory; what Cristina asked Viscente to wear on the night of the wedding and the physical being by how they were alone in then shop, highlighting the shared space. Crucially, she is also able to cry, as Viscente was. Thus, in this way Vera’s physiological or clinical body as seen by Robert becomes the phenomenological body, and through this rises from the absence and invisibility.