Monday 16 April 2018

The Question in Bodies #11: Still Ill, Part Two

The Skin I Live In (La Piel Que Habito) (2011)

(Warnings: discussion of sexual assault, discussion of transphobia. Also, all the spoilers – the twists of this film are profound and strange, and in order to talk about the meaning of this film, I'm giving them all away.)

At the beginning of Les Yeux Sans Visage, Professor Genessier stands before an august assembly in the Paris of 1960 and delivers a lecture where he explains the difficulties facing anyone attempting a face transplant, and the constant danger of rejection, and the inadequacies of the present solutions. At the opening of The Skin I Live In (La Piel Que Habito, and I'm using the English title here because – actually I don't know. I just am), Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) will stand before a similar gathering, now in the Toledo of 2012, and he will talk about the wonders of face transplants, and how he's done three himself, and what the future of the process might be.

He's worked on three out the nine, and that's not bad.

And when I saw Les Yeux Sans Visage last week, it was for the first time, and among my complex and varied feelings, one thing that stuck out to me was the degree to which Pedro Almodóvar had made The Skin I Live In a direct homage to Eyes Without a Face. Almodóvar’s film is much longer. It's more structurally complex, has more issues to unknot.

That doesn't mean it's necessarily a better film; Franju’s film has a direct purity to it. It doesn't stray from its path. On the other hand, Almodóvar’s complicated structure sometimes gets a bit lopsided, and he at times skips things, throws away some really important information that might have been the heart of another film through dialogue delivered by a character we don't necessarily have any reason to believe. The Skin I Live In is an easy enough film to watch, but a difficult one to untangle, and I think it's as easy to argue that it's a transphobic, misogynistic film, as it is to argue that it is a film about misogyny and gender identity. I think it wants to be the latter, in all honesty, but that doesn't mean it's absolved from the former.

Time has moved on in some ways, but not others. For, like Prof. Genessier, Dr. Ledgard apparently has a young woman locked up in his palatial out-of-town dwelling, on whom he is performing experimental surgery, using samples taken from pigs (Genessier used dogs, but the parallel is there). This is Vera (Elena Anaya), who spends her days drawing on the walls, making sculptures, watching TV, practising Yoga, reading, and aching for freedom. And Ledgard spends his time watching her on CCTV. A man in carnival dress arrives at the house. He is Zeca (Roberto Álamo), a career criminal and the son of Ledgard’s housekeeper and accomplice Marilia (Marisa Paredes). Zeca mistakes Vera for Ledgard's dead wife. He rapes her; Ledgard returns and shoots him. And that's the first half hour of the film. And it's only after this that we gain some inkling of the backstory.
Zeca is visibly moved.
The backstory depends on this one fact: Ledgard is a sociopath. No question of that can seriously be admitted. And the film implies that he was always a sociopath. He is a terrible man who does terrible things. He is vile, irredeemable. And his vileness is the prime mover of the plot.

The plot of The Skin I Live In is insanely convoluted, boxes within boxes, and revealed out of chronological order, but essentially, some years ago, Ledgard’s wife Gal (uncredited, but, I suspect, in the little we see of her, also Anaya) had a car accident, horrifically burning her all over (the implication is that Gal was attempting to escape Ledgard, with Zeca). Although Ledgard tried to treat her, she committed suicide after seeing her reflection, by jumping from a window, her body landing in front of their daughter Norma, who was traumatised by this and spent many years in therapy. Later on, Ledgard takes an older Norma (Blanca Suárez) to a wedding reception. There, a young man named Vicente (Jan Cornet) flirts with her. They head outside into the bushes, and Vicente, who is high, fails to pick up on the obvious, troubling signals that, as ill as she is, she is not competent to give informed consent. She's into it, and then she really isn't. Vicente hits the screaming, biting girl, knocking her out, guiltily dresses her as best he can, and runs away. Ledgard finds her, incoherent and delirious, and assumes that she's been raped – and whatever happened there, it's clear that Vicente is culpable in an assault. Shortly afterwards, Ledgard abducts Vicente, and imprisons him. Norma, unable to cope meanwhile, kills herself in the same way her mother did.
You don't get a pass if she's too ill to provide informed consent, Vicente.
Ledgard sedates Vicente, and with a couple of colleagues who have been told this is his desire, subjects Vicente to a vaginoplasty. And then Ledgard continues, subjecting Vicente to a succession of gender-confirming (gender-erasing?) surgeries, transforming Vicente, already slight, already effeminate, into a beautiful woman made into the image of his dead wife. Vicente becomes Vera (and partway through the transformation, has to wear a mask vaguely reminiscent of the one Christiane has to wear in Eyes Without a Face).

The arrival of Zeca has brought things to a head; Ledgard’s erasure of Vicente is so complete for him that he takes “Vera” to his bed, and Vicente/Vera plays the girlfriend until he doesn't, murders Ledgard and Marilia, and escapes. The film ends with Vicente, in a woman's body, returning to his mother and friend and asserting his identity as Vicente, not Vera.

There's a whole subcategory of porn which is about men getting forcibly transformed into beautiful women and having lots of great sex, and to some degree, Vicente’s transformation into Vera is eroticised, fetishised, and skirts right at the edge of this. But the sexual act is painful for Vera/Vicente. There's this scene during the transformation sequence, where Ledgard presents Vicente with a set of dildos of increasing size and explains that he has to penetrate himself with them to make his vagina work properly, starting with he smallest and working up to the biggest one, and it's apparent that Vicente/Vera is horrified, won't do this, and doesn't.
Start with the small one and work up...
Ledgard is a voyeur. As far as I can tell, he's straight, but he's also getting off on his own power over this person's identity. And he's having sex with “Vera”, or trying to, and Vera is leading him on, playing the submissive woman, even while Vicente is planning his demise.

Vera doesn't exist. Vera is a construct of the imagination of both Robert Ledgard and Pedro Almodóvar. She is doubly fictional. The face, the body, the name, the sexuality, the gender, the whole self, is a lie imposed by Ledgard because – well, why?

Revenge for his daughter's trauma and eventual death? He says as much, but it's apparent that his daughter, in her fugue, considers him part of the problem too. Gal tried to escape with another man; Ledgard, supposedly wanting to heal her, imprisoned her and drove her to her suicide through his behaviour. Revenge is convenient but it's not the whole story. It's a pretext.

Or is it scientific curiosity? Does he want to have a human guinea pig on whose body he can test his new, burn-proof transgenic skin? Performing secret, forbidden gene-splicing experiments to create mutant hybrid skin, he needs a victim. And that's part of it.

But he calls the skin “Gal”; he reconstructs “Vera” to resemble his wife so closely that a former lover can't tell the difference, thinks it's her. And Ledgard is achingly, painfully, cringingly pervy, a voyeur who watches Vera for hours, zooms in on that face, uses the immediate aftermath of “Vera” being raped to take “Vera” to his bed. Never mind that it's beautiful, silken-voiced Antonio Banderas doing this, never mind that Elena Anaya’s character submits without hesitation. it is creepy. It is really creepy. He's fucking the man he thinks raped his daughter. We know that he is doing that: but he knows that too, and he does it anyway. 
There's no reason why a villain can't be complex. But Robert Ledgard is a remorseless abuser. And, having driven his wife to her death, he has another go at making his own new version, out of the raw material he has handy, a beautiful mutant with an identity that he attempts to mould for his own purposes, and lusts over almost as soon as Vicente’s form crosses over to the obviously feminine – consider how he treats Vicente/Vera’s new breasts: he doesn't so much examine them as feel them up.

When “Vera” says, towards the end of the narrative, “I was always a woman,” Vicente is lying to effect his escape. Vicente was never a woman. Sure, Vicente was effeminate. At one point, his friend Cristina (Bárbara Lennie) tells him that he himself should try on the dress that he's been trying to get her to try on; at the end, wearing that dress, Vicente returns, and that dress is the pivot on which his recognition as Vicente depends.

Vera was never a woman because Vera never existed. That the name means “true” is an irony, because Vera is a lie.

This, I think, is the most important point on which to base a positive reading of this film. Vicente doesn't want to be a woman, explicitly avoids owning a woman’s sexuality, to the extent that being penetrated is agonisingly painful. The journey of trans people could be described as being from a gender assigned to them to the gender they were always supposed to inhabit. Vicente is a cis person forcibly made trans, in that he is trapped now in a body that he never wanted.

Far from the hypersexual post-transformation nymphet of the erotic fiction, Vicente lives in horror, forced into the vulnerability of a woman in the grip of a rape culture.
The reflection of an unfamiliar body.
And I suppose in that sense Vicente is forced into a trans experience, and with him to a much smaller extent the audience, forced to see the world in a body he was not supposed to have.

But we've still got an account of a physical transition where a guy is turned into a woman of extraordinary beauty, and a cisgender man actor swaps places with a cisgender woman actor. I can't help wondering how many people stuck in male bodies wouldn't see the possibility of being turned completely into Elena Anaya as something to kill for; meanwhile there's the troubling undertone in the film that castration and feminisation is a horror because, it can be inferred, that it's somehow a lesser state being a woman. The horror of womanhood in this film is to be restrained, toyed with, ogled, abused and raped. And all of these things really happen to women, regularly. It's one thing to show these things as happening to women; it's something else to force a man to understand these things by putting him in a woman's body. In portraying misogyny so effectively you have to do misogyny. You have to ogle and abuse on-screen. To show men instrumentalising women’s bodies, you have to make instruments of them. And if the primary feminine body in the film isn't real, it's not even about women. It's about men and women's bodies, and that's an important distinction to make. Note that when we find out that Vera is a lie, The Skin I Live In transitions from a film that passes the Bechdel Test to one that doesn't.
Inasmuch as The Skin I Live In is a corrective of the eroticised gender switch, it has many of those exact tropes. You have a beautiful feminine figure, locked up like a princess in the castle by a Bluebeard figure, keeping that beautiful body in tone, watched on a screen, given a magic skin that's inviolable and immune to fire. Imprisoned, a man's doll. It's the stuff of erotica. It's subverted, of course: one common trope of this sort of fiction is that the man, forced into the feminine body, enjoys being ogled and used and forced to submit, and the stinking, rotten subtext is that these experiences are and should be enjoyable for you if your body is designed for them. You read stuff occasionally posted online by “incels” (i.e. involuntary celibates) about how they think women are lucky to be objects of desire, that no one ever looks at them that way, and they're of course confusing attraction and the urge to possession. Being wanted as a self is not the same as being wanted as an object. For Vicente, it's hell.

Everything about The Skin I Live In is beautiful, but that also includes the horror. And horror can seduce you. Seductive horror is a dangerous thing; it can make you forget what's horrible, or make you associate things that shouldn't be a horror to us with things that should (as with Tetsuo, where gayness and violence become tangled up with each other). The Skin I Live In has the effect of giving us a gender transition that is both romanticised and horrific, and neither of the two extremes, that it holds in balance, reflect real people’s experiences, leaving only a broader, more vague metaphor to relate to.
A liar and a lie.
I've paired it with Eyes Without a Face here. And I think this is important because beyond the obvious homage, both films are about men forcing their idea of feminine identity upon apparently passive persons who find agency and escape after visiting murderous justice on their tormentors, both of them denying the forms of femininity forced upon their bodies and identities. I'm glad both films end that way: they're the only just endings they could have, and the thought of Christiane putting up with more stolen faces stitched onto her until it works, with a trail of bodies behind her and her awful father, is fully as horrendous as Vera forgetting Vicente and becoming Ledgard’s pliant, submissive lover. The endings of these films, similar as they are, carry the biggest argument for their redemption, because both bring cathartic justice. Both are finally on the side of the victim.

I really liked The Skin I Live In, and I found it troubling and fascinating and even moving, but all of this is exactly why at the same time it made me deeply uncomfortable, and not entirely in all the ways that I think it intended to.