Friday, 26 August 2011

GFT programme note: the skin i live in

Pedro Almodovar's latest film is in cinemas today. It's pretty darn excellent, but it's difficult to say much about it without giving away bits of the plot... These notes avoid the big twists, but i reckon you're still better off putting your fingers in your ears and going 'lalalalalala' until after you've seen it. Then come back and read!


Please note that this article contains spoilers.

The Skin I Live In has tied reviewers in knots, as they attempt to engage with its rich thematic melange, whilst diligently refraining from any ‘spoilers’ that could damage appreciation of its serpentine plotting. These notes will maintain this discretion by keeping key revelations veiled, but in order to say anything of substance, some of its mysteries must be partially unpicked. Hence the opening disclaimer: not all films require (or are afforded) such closely-guarded secrecy, but The Skin I Live In’s tale of vengeance is best encountered as cold as possible.

Much has been made of the reunion between director Pedro Almodóvar and erstwhile muse Antonio Banderas, a reunion from which the latter would appear to benefit more. Since the actor first honed his craft in several of the Manchegan’s early films, from Laberinto de Pasiones (Labyrinth of Passion, 1982) to Átame! (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, 1990), his Hollywood career has wobbled. For every success – whether commercial (the Zorro franchise) or cult (Desperado) – there’s been a costly flop (The 13th Warrior) or a critical whipping (the Spy Kids sequels being a pertinent example, what with a fourth instalment – in scratch and sniff ‘4D’ no less – having entered cinemas almost concurrently with The Skin I Live In). It’s little wonder that, at a Cannes press conference, Banderas described working with Almodóvar again, after more than two decades apart, as a homecoming.

Banderas is not the film’s only link to its director’s past. In fact, few filmmakers are so brazenly self-referential, making Almodóvar perhaps the quintessential modern auteur. Familiar themes – including sexual deviance, shifting identities and family secrets – are sutured to much-discussed external inspirations, ranging from Georges Franju’s Eyes without a Face (1960) to H G Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau. Both these sets of influences – mad scientists of page and screen, and Almodóvar’s own oeuvre – are explored thoroughly in the September edition of Sight and Sound, in articles by Kim Newman[1] and Paul Julian Smith[2] respectively, and so will not be pored over further here.

For all its continuities, The Skin I Live In manages to take Almodóvar into fresh territory, constituting his first foray into science fiction – though only nominally so. In 2012, Robert Ledgard (Banderas) specialises in transgenic research, splicing animal and human DNA to create heat-resistant synthetic skin – a process not as far-fetched as it might initially appear. Only this month, the Netherlands Forensic Institute reported ‘bulletproof’ skin made from a combination of human epidermis and silk harvested from genetically-engineered goats;[3] while in July, researchers at the Hanover Medical School suggested using more traditionally-sourced spider silk as a base for synthetic skin genesis.[4] Though neither involves human transgenesis, both announcements nonetheless contribute a veneer of scientific plausibility to a plot constantly (and no doubt deliberately) on the cusp of ludicrousness. But, as ever, no single genre can contain Almodóvar’s ideas, resulting in a trans-genre fusion of body-horror, melodrama, psychosexual thriller and more.

The mysterious subject of Ledgard’s experiments is Vera (Elena Anaya), encased in a body stocking and locked in the surgeon’s opulent and remote Toledo home/clinic – a compound that architecturally transplants chrome and glass on to antiquated brickwork. The nature of their relationship – beyond that of test subject and medical researcher – is initially unclear, but repeated shots of insects come laden with metamorphic symbolism, as does a scene in which Ledgard bends wire around the limbs of bonsai trees. Ledgard spies on his patient/prisoner via a giant video display which allows him to look through a dividing wall; penetrating surfaces is, as the title might indicate, a recurring theme. The surveillance screen enlarges Vera’s image, placing her under a microscopic lens to be scrutinised, drawing parallels between the petri dishes in which Ledgard cultivates his revolutionary tissue, and the room in which Vera is confined.

The bioethics of transgenesis are given voice in an early scene in which Ledgard unveils his experiments to the scientific community, asking his peers (and the audience) ‘why not use scientific advances to improve our species?’ A series of tragic plot twists propose a firm counter-argument: such godlike power has the potential to corrupt, not only morally, but biologically. Julian Huxley’s notion of ‘transhumanism’, a term coined in 1927 and subsequently formalised as an ideology by the World Transhumanist Association (WTA), represents the optimistic counter-perspective on such genetic modification. The WTA’s Transhumanist Declaration envisions a technology-led utopia, with bodies bio-engineered to ‘overcome aging, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering’ and more, in order to fulfil humanity’s currently-unrealised potential.[5] Theirs is either a vision of human perfection, or, in the words of Francis Fukuyama, the ‘most dangerous idea on the planet.’[6]

Almodóvar’s master stroke is to take such grand philosophical ideas and make them mere grist for the film’s melodrama. Ledgard’s motives and emotions are difficult to gauge and ambiguous to the end, but it’s safe to say that he is driven not by scientific curiosity alone, but something more painful; as his birth mother puts it, their bloodline carries tragedy in its entrails, with revelations of fraternal conflict, maternal abandonment and paternal wrath underscoring the notion of doomed lineage. Personal passions motivate actions more than academic progress: in The Skin I Live In, lust exerts a greater influence than the desire for knowledge; questions of identity are more pertinent than questions of morality; and blood is thicker than saline.

Christopher Buckle
Researcher and Journalist
University of Glasgow

[1] Kim Newman, ‘The Man with the Scalpel’, Sight and Sound, September 2011, p. 21

[2] Paul Julian Smith, ‘Mark of Identification’, Sight and Sound, September 2011 pp. 23-4

[3] Lynn DeBruin, ‘Utah researcher helps artist make bulletproof skin’, 21 August 2011, accessed at

[4] ‘Artificial Skin – Culturing of Different Skin Cell Lines for Generating an Artificial Skin Substitute on Cross-Weaved Spider Skin Fibres’, PLoS ONE Vol. 6 Issue 7, accessed at

[5] Accessed at

[6] Francis Fukuyama, ‘Transhumanism’, Foreign Policy, 01 September 2004, accessed at

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