by Arthur Gobillot
This question of intention has been floating around in the arts for awhile now, and is drawn into unexpected focus by Pedro Almodóvar’s most recent film, The Skin I Live In. This crypto-gothic thriller pits the hobbyistic autodidact against the authoritative professional in negotiating the emotional vortex of Almodóvar's film world. The Skin I Live In begins troubled by its own attempt to explain the relationship between its flip-flopping protagonists: Vera, the captive/odalisque/ enigma, and Dr. Robert Ledgard, brilliant plastic surgeon and Vera’s ostensible captor. The establishing sequences of shots examines Vera’s multiform incarceration beginning with a vista of the legendary Spanish walled city of Toledo, then follows an aerial shot of a walled estate, the view through its locked gates, a barred window through which we see a contorted form, and finally pulling back from a protective plastic dome under which a security camera’s lens is trained on Vera’s body, stretched over the couch in a semi-standing backbend.
Vera is Robert Ledgard’s prisoner. She is perhaps the most thoroughly imprisoned Almodóvar character there has ever been, which is saying a lot. Typically these unfortunates navigate a minefield of prisons: socio-economic, sexual, intellectual, serotypical, literal… Unbeknownst to us Vera quietly runs the gamut. Her opaqueness is baffling considering her apparent troubles and one guesses hopelessly at her origins until suddenly, midway throughout the film we discover that Vera, until now film’s obscure object of pity and mistrust, was once someone entirely different. An enemy perhaps.
Is Vicente the innocent, albeit feckless victim of a miscommunication when, he partially rapes Dr. Robert Ledgard’s emotionally disturbed daughter at a party, or is he a cruel predator? This question is met by the moral ambiguity and circumstantial drama that are typical to Sr. Almodóvar who has never been able to resist playing up the physical comedy of rape. Though objective judgment is not cast, consequences are severe for hapless Vicente, who is soon abducted by Robert and subjected to innumerable physical and psychological tortures (including some sexy dog bath stuff with a high pressure hose.) Robert’s punishments abruptly escalate after his traumatized progeny commits suicide. In a flash Vicente is given gender reassignment surgery, a host of mamaplasties, a vocal chord reduction, and an entirely new face. The transformation is beyond science or belief. The nefarious Dr. Robert crowns his great work with transplants of a genetically modified skin, resistant to burns bites and puncture. He calls the skin “Gal” for his wife who cuckolded him years before and then burned to death in a car crash.
Spain has already known a GAL, the Grupo Antiterroristas de Liberación, an illegal yet government sanctioned death squad that targeted members of Basque separatist movement. In the 1980's GAL dealt in kidnappings and torture and was seen as a lingering vestige of dictatorship in the transitional period following the death of Fransisco Franco. It is significant that Vera’s new skin should take this name--it is an eloquent expression of the dominion Robert has over Vera's body, and the bondage her new skin holds her in.
Such bondage is psychological as well as corporeal. In a scene following Vicente’s dizzying abduction and sex-change, yet before his transformative plastic surgery, we find him standing on a chair in the center of his bedroom attempting to catch a glimpse of his metamorphosed genitalia. The room's only mirror has been placed at such a height that he cannot regard his face and crotch at the same time. As he perches on the char, desperately trying to make sense of his new bodily situation, he is Vicente the man. He is recognizable to himself and to us, but when he parts his robe his mirror phase ends with medusa’s head.
The complete loss of one's physical identity is a bummer, it turns out. After months of frenzied dress shredding, makeup discarding, and scrawling things like “I Breathe” and “Opium, make me forget” on the walls of her bedroom, Vera begins the task of subsuming Vicente, the object of her melancholic woe, so that she can rebuild her devastated psyche. How can she accomplish this? How does she create a meaningful existence from scratch? She gets a hobby. Through yoga she describes her new body to herself, literally stretching it to it's limits, and by practicing meditation gains control over her rage and despair. She explores her femininity through the artwork of Louise Bourgeoise and the fiction of Alice Munro. We begin to see flickers of a new unfamiliar subjectivity: an introspective, driven artist who is in total control of herself and wishes to be in control of her circumstances. A beautiful woman who is in touch with her sexuality and knows how to make it work for her. Someone who has known violence and despair, and survived. Vicente may have been a talented window dresser at his mother's vintage boutique but its safe to say he never displayed such depth or complexity.
Having reached this apotheosis Vera busts out in thrilling fashion, seducing Dr. Robert in a flash, earning his trust , shooting him in the heart, and then hitting the road with only a floral dress and cab fare. Dr. Robert has made the mistake of regarding Vera as a mere prop filling the voids left by his wife and daughter, an empty husk. Vera is his assertion against pain and futility, his attempt to deny his personal tragedies by forcing them to adopt another form. This approach always backfires spectacularly in Almodóvar's films, as in greek tragedy, and Robert paves the way for potent, strong, and inscrutable she-eminence, Vera, to lay him low. In removing the offending body of Vicente from the world Robert spawns a new and invisible enemy. The harpy of his own invention, she has created a new fiction for herself in which she has the strength to rise above pain and loss when her oppressor can not. Like all of Almodóvar's heroines it is she who walks away from the crime scene, in heels.
Vera’s erotic insurrection brings to mind Gilles Deleuze’s recurring question: What can a Body Do? How does a body function in social space and to what extent are others implicated by a body. Vera’s body has the power to bamboozle her captor into believing that he has righted the wrongs in his past and achieved equilibrium. She has become the perfect prisoner who no longer needs to be caged, but his powers of observation are as useless as fire or a mosquito’s proboscis when it comes to penetrating Gal. When Vera enters a room made up and dressed to kill she is a flawless, or rather seamless. She lies to protect Dr. Robert, sits in his lap, kisses him passionately, makes love to him. We fall for her right up until she draws the pistol from her handbag rather than the lube…We should have known better, but that’s just what a body can do.
Genesis Breyer P-Orridge often refers to the body as a cheap suitcase. For years he and his late life partner, Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge collaborated on a project they titled Pandrogyne. Not merely a performance and not exactly art, Pandrogyne was an experimental process by which they attempted to break the physical, sexual, and perceptual barriers that separated them as entities. This manifested as alterations to dress and affect, a deconstruction of individual roles and behaviors, and blurring physical attributes through plastic surgery.
...there is no way of knowing which has supremacy, the recording device that is DNA, or the SELF we converse with internally that we call consciousness but often, rather lazily, still imagine and identify as the living, biological, body. In fact, we see the “I” of our consciousness as a fictional assembly or collage that resides in the environment of the body.(1)
By rejecting the assumption that one's identity is somehow tied to a biological state, Pandrogyne, is meant to result in “the creation of a third more conceptually precise entity” a cut up, something new and unlike its source materials.
Deleuze pushed his investigation of the body’s potential to a similar place when he conceived of the Body without Organs (BwO,) the virtual body that exists in a realm of infinite possibility. Unlike the actual body, which is often a slave to physicality and habit, the BwO is a state in which one comprehends the fluidity and transience of physical and psychological existence. Deleuze asserts that through experimentation one can access potentials beyond what they consider possible for their body and mind. Putter around, engage in trial and error exercises, come into conjunction with other bodies and learn from them, and expand your capabilities. This process of becoming, pandrogyne,Vera’s self-fictionalizing efforts, they are not careers. They have no methodology. The IRS can’t drive them to the bank. They are tools whose value cannot be monetized because it cannot be generated in the fixed world. Adaptable and enduring; they work for you. You can’t be fired from them, and removing his offending body from the world, you can always quit.
(1) Breyer P-Orridge. "Pandrogeny - An Attitude Discussed: Breaking Sex." GENESIS BREYER P-ORRIDGE. 2010 pdf