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With the tense, twisted thriller The Skin I Live In, director Pedro Almodóvar synthesizes the results of a decade’s worth of cinematic experimentation, not unlike the mad scientist at the movie’s center. Legard (Antonio Banderas, reuniting with Almodóvar for the first time in nearly 20 years) is a cosmetic surgeon who becomes obsessed with developing a replacement for human skin that’s better and more durable than the real thing. The root of his obsession is initially unclear, as is his reason for keeping a young woman (Elena Anaya) locked in one of the bedrooms in his expansive mansion, a prisoner covered by a tailored bodysuit and a latex mask that covers all but a few square inches of epidermis. Is she his wife, his daughter, or someone else, held captive as an unwilling guinea pig for his experiments? Shuttling backward and forward in time, in a dual frame whose true import only becomes clear late in the film, Almodóvar attacks the familiar themes of cultural repression and sexual fluidity from an unusually unsettling perspective. Drifting between English and Spanish (the latter routed through a translator), Almodóvar sat down with The A.V. Club to talk about going from science fiction to science fact, why military men love dressing up as women, and The Skin I Live In’s startling final plot twists.
Note: Almodóvar freely discusses all of The Skin I Live In, including its ending, so avoid the marked passages if you wish to preserve the film’s surprises.
The A.V. Club: The Skin I Live In is based, in part, on Thierry Jonquet’s novel Tarantula. You don’t normally do adaptations. What was special about this case?
Pedro Almodóvar: Really, it’s a fiction of the book, because I invent everything. I was inspired, to be fair. We bought the rights since the beginning, because I was interested in one situation of the book, which is the revenge of the father. But also, since the very beginning, since the moment I thought about the skin, talking about a mad doctor that almost invents this new skin immediately came to my mind then, just to talk about humanity in the most basic and direct way, and thus to speak of the human being through the largest organ that the human being has. In the 10 years it took me to develop the script, it started as a science-fiction film, but through the mapping of the human genome and cellular therapy, 10 years later, it became a reality. In fact, there’s a lab in Grenada that’s already developing artificial skin. Even things like face transplants, which just few years ago would have been in the realm of science fiction. Curiously, Spain is one of the primary countries in these transplants. In my travels, I was inspired by one doctor in Valencia. It’s incredible what he’s doing.
AVC: What caught your imagination about this idea of artificial skin? There’s a sense that it’s indestructible but also somehow impermeable, that the price of protection is being sealed off.
PA: The skin here refers to various things. On the one hand, there’s a reference to the real human skin, something by which you identify a person. But of course, more and more, it’s not the case. Even in race. Now you can be black and have white skin, or even the opposite. You can manipulate this, so at the end of the day, the presence of the skin was also a way to get toward an abuse of power, and ways in which the character is going to abuse power. But it’s also going to become like a shield. At the same time—the character did say this at some point in the movie, but I cut that out because it was a little too long—it’s also a skin that is very receptive to pleasure, and even intensifies pleasure, but it keeps anything that is damaging to it, or anything that would attack it at bay, both from inside and outside. So, for example, from negative emotions, all these emotions that could register on the skin would not register on that particular skin.
AVC: Like you wouldn’t blush, for example.
PA: Yes. Because the skin is related with everything, above all from the interior. So on the one hand, it’s a good invention, it’s a positive invention, and in fact the doctor in my film begins by wanting to save someone and trying to help people who have suffered burns and the like. But in the end, it becomes about his abuse of power, and how he manipulates and violates this one person. On one hand, it’s a romantic story, because he’s so madly in love with his wife, and he couldn’t save her. And he’s trying, after her death, to remake her, but also trying to make this wonderful skin, that if he could have invented it at that moment, would have saved her. What was impossible is possible now. It’s absolutely possible to do it. The story can be said like that, but the problem is that this man is completely a psychopath, and to do this, he didn’t care to kidnap someone and treat them like a guinea pig. So if you have to really summarize the film at the most basic level, it’s about one person’s absolute abuse of power, faced against another person’s immense capacity for survival, and to survive precisely that kind of abuse of power. There’s a reflection there, too, about identity, both sexual identity, but also a more essential identity belonging to the person.
AVC: The theme of change or transformation runs all through your work. In the case of the transsexual, who shows up in a lot of your movies, it’s a matter of changing from the inside out, changing your body to reflect who you are. But with The Skin I Live In, it’s the other way around: Does this artificial skin change the person inside? Did you have a sense of approaching a familiar theme from the opposite angle in this story?
PA: My work is very much tied to my own experiences, for example, as a child, watching the play of gender that was something very ludic, if you like, that was about performance, very associated with carnival, watching men enjoying dressing themselves up as women, and women enjoying dressing themselves up as men. So I saw that growing up in my childhood, then it also was very real when I did military service. The men in the military loved dressing up as women—in a very heterosexual situation and context. This was not with gay people, no, absolutely heterosexual people. Then another stage in my observing, which is no longer about a play of gender, but has to do with an affirmation, which is what you were talking about, of people who actually feel a particular gender, but present otherwise. This is both for transvestites and transsexuals, who live differently. A transsexual has to actually undergo a whole series of surgeries in order to achieve the desired gender. So these were two things that I experienced in my life that also showed up in my films.
There’s been a huge change in Spanish society. It used to be that people that I knew that wanted to undergo a sex change had to do it very marginally, in some cases secretly, and also sometimes having to prostitute themselves, whether they wanted to or not, in order to achieve the sex change, to get the money to get the sex change. Thankfully, now it’s become a more acceptable practice. Even within families, people are more accepting of the transgender situation, and actually support it. Talking about The Skin I Live In, the situation is completely different. I could say the opposite. Here, transsexuality is a punishment, and treated like that. I cannot imagine a worse punishment like this. I think that’s precisely what makes this film approach the horror genre. It’s just because that situation, and I can’t imagine a worse situation, provokes more thinking about the possibility that that could happen. It doesn’t mean I’ve changed my mind about transsexuality, but in this case, it’s about looking at it from a different vantage point and really thinking about the ways in which it could be the worst thing that could possibly happen to you.
[Significant spoilers ahead.]
AVC: Once we understand what the situation truly is, which takes quite a long time, we understand it’s a film about holding onto that core identity. It ends with a simple assertion of who you are: “I’m Vicente.”
PA: That’s very important. At least for me, this is the real and the great message. I don’t like to talk like you’re making a movie with a message in it. That’s a cliché. But for me, it was very important for the character of Vera [Elena Anaya] to go back to his beliefs, and since the moment that he stepped into the boutique of his mother, or her mother, that she knows who she is. She felt exactly the same person than six years before when he left in the body of Vicente in the motorcycle before the kidnapping. And that’s very important. I like the idea that the identity is something inaccessible to scientific advanced. But even beyond just the scientific advances, that even masculinity and femininity at the end of the day have nothing to do with the genitals. It’s beyond that.
AVC: It’s the difference between gender and sex.
PA: It’s an abstraction, but for me that’s very clear. It’s like a quality, to feel feminine or masculine. But even in this case, it’s beyond the genitals, the body that you have. Perhaps here people will just laugh, because they find it funny, but for me, it’s very moving. You know, curiously, I didn’t know to put it or not, that line. What I wanted, it was a question of glances, to look. Your mother looks at you, and doesn’t recognize you. That’s because your skin is new, so she can’t even smell you. But, the other girl, when she looks at her, she says, “Oh, this is a beautiful girl.” And she likes her. The other girl, Christina, doesn’t hesitate, that this one is Vicente. Let’s say I like change in life. But life is full of paradox. I didn’t know at the end that if Vera needs to say that, so I wasn’t clear with Elena Anaya, the actress, because I wanted the situation of these two women looking at her. She said, “What is happening? Why are you crying?” Is very strange to see two unknown women crying. It’s uncomfortable for her. But it was so intense for the actresses that it was Elena who said, “I’m Vicente.” It was her. I didn’t put it in. Of course I had—it’s long, the shot—the possibility of putting it in or not. I decided to leave it.
AVC: What’s interesting is that the movie just stops there. You assume she’s going to launch into a long monologue, and then you realize that simple statement is all that’s needed.
PA: Just think about the situation. It’s so difficult for someone, what happened to Vera. How can you start? How can you synthesize your situation? You’re desperate to tell, “I am who I am, and I need you. Because I don’t have anything. I have a new appearance, a new identity, but I need you, because of course.” After the movie, that would be long, with police pursuits. She’s shot two people. Perhaps they deserved it, but there is a problem that—not immediately, because the house is so closed—she would be discovered. But anyway, she needs help. And also to be recognized. “I’m Vicente, I was kidnapped. They changed my sex, and I had to kill two people and run away. And I need help.” I couldn’t say it with less words to synthesize all that. In some screenings, there was a little laughter; for me, it was very moving, but of course it is a unique situation.
AVC: They might laugh as much out of surprise as anything else.
PA: There’s a bit of nervous laughter that this movie occasions, because it makes people uncomfortable. So despite this very profound conversation we’re having around sex and gender, I also want to make sure readers and spectators know that this is a very enjoyable film. The film is about adventure, also the kind of adventure you don’t come back from. That it’s about transgenesis, and it’s about all these other things as well.