Deceptive Surfaces in “The Skin I Live In” (2011)

Short Response for Film Theory. Major Spoilers ahead.

Xavier Aldana Reyes’ paper “Skin Deep? Surgical Horror and the Impossibility of Becoming Woman in Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live in” perceptively demonstrates the persistent collisions existent in the Vera/Vincente character throughout its runtime. In great detail, the writer argues how Almodóvar successfully deconstructs the very way in which gender (if observed only through the skin) acts as a restrictive social construct in his film to demonstrate the “limitations of corporeal investments” in the horror genre. Instead, he posits the importance of noting a person’s subjectivity not through the “deceptive” skin but through an internal identity that may be entirely different from the very surface. Building on these very ideas, I want to supplement his argument by demonstrating how the filmic surface of the film – cinematography and narrative structure – also act as a form of deceptive skin for the spectator only to later reveal their complicity in assigning defined associations to Vera’s/Vincente’s identity when there was none.

Most of this deception takes place in the first half of the film. The spectator first meets Vera, not Vincente. Here, Almodóvar critically objectifies her body through the “voyeuristic gaze” of the two male characters in the film – Dr. Robert Ledgard and Zeca. In two of the film’s most reflexive sequences, Almodóvar frames these male characters’ corporeal investment through their erotic responses to watching Vera on a screen. Whereas Dr. Ledgard’s response is simultaneously predatory and mimetic to watching a close-up of Vera’s (constructed) skin, Zeca’s is literally lustful, demonstrated by another close-up of him licking the screen. These physical responses, directly related to the somatic responses discussed in the theory readings this week, demonstrate how the spectator can potentially mis(identify) with characters in the film. Almodóvar uses this very ability of the spectator – to assign a gender identity to Vera/Vincente as strictly female based on the somatic responses that these male characters have by looking at her skin – to deceive them.

The film’s “reveal” entirely upends any association the spectator makes about Vera/Vincente’s identity. In doing so, the film deconstructs the audience’s very idea of constructing an identity based on what they have previously seen. Through this subversion (or inversion) of the plot in the second half, Almodóvar demonstrates the limitations of the ways in which the audience can identify solely based on the exterior.

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