After much consideration I decided to see the film, The Skin That I Live In. I originally had some reservations about it because of concerns about sexual violence and the concept of forced feminization. As it turns out neither concern was justified. It is not really a horror film about transgenderism and the violence is actually pretty tame. If I had to summarize the film, I would say it is really more like a Greek tragedy than anything else. All the major characters in the film meet tragic ends due in some way to their own misdeeds and failings but the consequences of their actions seem somewhat out of proportion to the misdeeds. I found it difficult to hate or despise most of them, although much of what they did was reprehensible. In some sense they they are as much victims as victimizers. I found the overall sense of the film to be very somber, that there were really no winners, only losers. I found it to be a good film, not a great one, but a very good one that was very rewarding to watch. It was a very different movie that what I expected given the interview with the director in Salon.
Spoiler Alert: the following review contains lots of details of the movie. If you prefer to learn what happens by yourself in the movie, stop reading here.
The film itself is rather long (132 minutes) and begins slowly. It is in Spanish with English subtitles. Like films such as Pulp Fiction the order of events in the film is not sequential and events in different time periods are mixed together to establish the background of the story. I found the first hour of the film to be sort of slow and felt like they could have cut 10 minutes of it out without too much of a loss. Much of the first hour introduces the two major characters: Dr Ledgard (played by Antonio Banderas) and Vera (played by Elena Anaya). From all appearances Vera is a victim of medical experiments performed by Dr Ledgard which are designed to produce very durable artificial skin. Vera does not seem to be abused, just kept imprisoned against her will.
As the story unwinds, the history of Dr Ledgard and Vera becomes more evident and the simple morality of human experimentation begins to unravel. Ledgard is a gifted surgeon who is slowly driven mad by the tragic and violent deaths of his wife and daughter. His mother describes him as born insane but it seems more of a recent development.
Vera was once Vincent who was sort of restless young man who worked in his mother’s dress shop and spent his free time partying while in a drugged stupor. He seemed not to be a really evil guy, just sort of a stupid one who allows the drugs to lead him into raping Ledgard’s daughter.
Other characters include Dr Ledgard’s mother worked as a servant much of her life, until some unspoken crime lead to some jail time.
Ledgard’s deceased wife is severely burned in a car accident while running away with Ledgard’s half brother. Despite Ledgard’s best efforts at saving her, she ultimately commits suicide after seeing the extent of her injuries. Ledgard at first is inspired by her death to begin work on the artificial skin but as the film goes on his intentions become more complex and distorted.
Ledgard’s daughter, Norma, is first driven made at the sight of her dead, disfigured mother and again after being raped by Vincient. She too commits suicide. She is the true innocent of the film.
The second half of the movie explores the history of Ledgard and Vincient/Vera and how their lives became intertwined and then began to unravel, eventually leading to the deaths of multiple people. This is clearly the most interesting part of the film.
The transgendered element was present throughout the movie, although it was not until well into the second half of the movie that it became evident. It was presented in an almost clinical manner . It is a key part of the story but not treated in a sensational or crude manner. Dr Legard turns Vincient into Vera, seemingly as revenge for the attack upon his daughter and her subsequent death. His motivation is unclear though, perhaps even to himself. At first it seems to be about revenge but as his madness begins to consume him, it becomes both a scientific and personal quest to recover the wife he has lost. He turns Vincient into a copy of his wife, right down to her facial appearance and begins to fall in love with his creation. It is a very disturbing but also sort of pathetic transition for him. He despises his daughter’s rapist but also loves the woman he has created from the rapist. He even begins to assume that Vera really loves him. For me it was more tragic than anything else. He is clearly gifted but is also arrogant enough to try to recreate that which he has lost by any means possible and then blind enough to believe Vera really loves him.
Vincient’s forced transformation into Vera is equally troubling. He seems oddly accepting of it, almost passively going along with it. I think this part is the most unbelievable part of the story. A virile young man is forcibly transformed into a woman and seems to adopt into the role without much resistance. The actress who play Vera (different from the actor who plays Vincient) is a beautiful woman with amazing eyes. She plays the role of Vera without a hint of Vincient’s underlying masculinity though. We are asked to believe that an unwilling young man could be turned into an incredibly feminine woman in a period of a few years. It is like Dr Ledgard operated on Vincient’s psyche as well as his body. It is sort of a ideal outcome of the postop experience. Vera early on rejects all makeup but appears in every scene with impecable makeup. Her hair is perfectly styled and moves and talks as would a genetic woman. It makes Vera more attractive (and sympathetic) but much less believable as someone who has undergoing a forced sex change. It as if Vincient had been willingly absorbed by Vera.
At the same time, Vincient/Vera does show remarkable fortitude throughout the whole process. I found myself very mixed in my feelings toward Vincient/Vera. On the one hand Vincient is a rapist who caused the eventual death of an innocent. On the other hand, he is really not a monster as much as a stupid and foolish boy and one begins to feel sorry for Vera, trapped as she is in her new skin and physical prison.
Eventually Vera frees herself from Ledgard and returns to the dress shop owned by her mother. The film ends simply with Vera saying to her mother: “I am Vincient”. At some level it is not clear in what sense that is really true. Vera appears in the dress shop nicely styled and wearing a lovely dress. She is clearly comfortable with her feminine self. She did not show up in short hair and male clothes. In some ways Vera is a far stronger person that Vincient ever was having survived an harrowing adventure. Vincient whined when he was caught but Vera fights and schemes her way to freedom. One feels there is an inner steel that was never there with Vincient. Overall she seems far more at home in her skin than Vincient ever was in his. One gets the sense that Vera will succeed in life far beyond what Vincient ever would have done. Perhaps Dr Ledgard, unwillingly, ended up doing Vincient a favor, redeeming him a way that Vincient would never have been able to do himself. Oddly enough it seems that the only “winner” in this sad tale is Vera (but not Vincient).