Pedro Almodóvar’s ‘La piel que habito’

The Skin I Live In revolves around the principles of destruction and reconstruction, creation and recreation. Every character seems to carry their burden of unnaturalness, perversion and confusion. Robert Ledgard embodies a grotesque and impenetrable mélange of a darkly sterile Dr Frankenstein; a sophistically overambitious Dr Jekyll who is damagingly haunted behind his back by his Dionysian alter ego and half-brother Mr Hyde, Zeca, who is killed just as in Poe’s doppelgänger short story William Wilson; and a version of Buffalo Bill that results in a macabre need for affection and a smothering voyeurism paired with controlling obsession and the dictatorial ‘right’ of possession as a creator. After Ledgard loses both his wife and his daughter he tries to recapture their faces which are almost identical and materialises his memory of them and his loss that he cannot accept as such because he gives in to the need of reformation, that is what he excels at, which makes him a rigorously self-destructive suppressor of his proper humanness. He is so determined in his hubris that he has lost every sense of ethical judgement, merely that of a discrete self-justice.

In correlation with his wife he seems to be the disregarded, neglected and ignorant counterpart that is fixated on duties, work and personal ambitions. This probably leads to sexual and emotional frustrations on both sides as he comes across as rather clumsily platonic and inexperienced when it comes to loose human passions. As his wife is an autonomous human being that cannot be controlled and captivated, she is attracted to his brotherly flesh and blood opponent, personifying everything that he lacks, and starts an affair with Zeca. The fact that Ledgard can empower himself by taking care of his wife’s burned face after a car crash catapults him in his safe territory again where it is all about his mania: the human skin and he as the master of it. He may merely be in charge of the matter, but not of the psyche, as his wife literally jumps into her Freitod as if in need for separate air, spheres, after having seen her distorted and unidentifiable face. A sickly-sweet achievement of his sets itself free, out of his control, and destroys his regenerative effort.

His mentally unstable daughter repeats her mother’s suicidal pattern as if every objected subject near Ledgard is forced into a destructive chain-reaction. She is not fully aware of a sexual penetration that happens to her as such until her body and psyche revolt and perturb her momentary partner, Vicente, who remains totally perplexed. The mother-daughter-song speaks of death as a way to flee, get away, forever.

Ledgard hunts Vicente down, incarcerates him for several years and imposes an involuntary sex reassignment surgery on him, replicating his deceased wife and naming the him, now a her, Vera. A subject once, now object, his, his own property, self-created, or mutilated depending on the psychological eye of the beholder, his creation captivated, trained, restrained, confined, but not indoctrinated, just not fully self-conscious. He thinks that he may master what he has created, that he owns every right of this being, that every decision concerning Vera is first and foremost his own, he is her scientific patriarch, a materialistic observer, merely seeing a masterpiece of a copy of his wife all done by himself, when he gazes full of self-complimenting amazement at her all he sees is his narcissistic egocentric power on two feet, literally buried under the skin he gave birth to and prides himself on. Again the disturbed sex but not necessarily gender alteration leads to expression, protest, rejection, self-infliction and efforts to destroy something that means a lot to him in order to hurt him for once as that is the only power his ‘victims’ possess over him: the mutilation of their skin, a burdening terror he can feel.

He circulates around Vera like a sensory pestilence, with fixed eyes on her positioned body, her skin kept like a treasure in a secretly absorbed chest.  She is the object of his analytic stare, the experiment he loves and hates, the embodiment of his discrepancies, he locks her up for his proper sake, convinced that he cannot lose her as well or again, who is she, he after all, to him, for him? The rather monolithic relation or rather imposition reminds of Robert Browning’s poems ‘My Last Duchess’ and ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ in which possessive obsession and love-hate are the leitmotif. If someone had the right to murder his creation, then it would be himself, even if it were against his will, and that is exactly what nature will do: evoke actions that he has not planned, not thought-through and that are not in his hands and area of power, working against him, rebelling, counteracting, perverting the order, rearing up out of the identity trouble and quest, the object eliminating the subject, the slave destroying the master, the emasculated man, now an effeminate woman finally suffocating the creator, the asexual monster in–between.

woman s face
Photo by Gabb Tapic on

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