Ever since his wife was burned in a car crash, Dr. Robert Ledgard, an eminent plastic surgeon, has been interested in creating a new skin with which he could have saved her. After twelve years, he manages to cultivate in his own laboratory, a skin that is sensitive to caresses, but a real shield against all the aggressions, both external and internal, to which our largest organ is submitted. To obtain it, he has used the possibilities provided by cellular therapy.
In addition to years of study and experimentation, Robert needed a human guinea pig, an accomplice and no scruples. Scruples were never a problem, they weren't part of his character. Marilia, the woman who looked after him from the day he was born, is his most faithful accomplice. And as for the human guinea pig…
Over the course of each year, dozens of young people of both sexes disappear from their homes, in many cases of their own will. One of those young people will end up sharing the splendid mansion, El Cigarral, with Robert and Marilia, and will be doing so unwillingly.
There are irreversible processes, roads of no return, one way journeys. “The Skin I Live In” tells the story of one of those processes. The protagonist travels one of those roads against her will, she is violently forced to set out on a journey from which she cannot return. Her Kafkaesque story is the result of a sentence handed out by a jury of just one person, her worst enemy. The verdict, therefore, is a form of extreme revenge.
“The Skin I Live In” tells the story of that revenge.
The first images in the film show a mansion surrounded by trees, an idyllic place. It's called “El Cigarral” and it's protected by stone walls and a high barred gate. Through one of the mansion's windows, also barred, we can make out a female figure in motion. Once inside the room, the woman seems to be naked while she carries out a series of complicated yoga positions. In the close-ups we discover that she is totally covered by a skin coloured body stocking that clings to her like a second skin. In the kitchen, Marilia, the housekeeper, prepares the woman's breakfast which she then sends up in a dumb waiter that opens directly onto the room.
From the outset, “El Cigarral” is portrayed as a prison in the midst of nature. An isolated place, inaccessible to eyes on the outside. The first actions that show us Vera, the captive woman concentrating on her yoga positions, and Marilia, her jailer, seem strangely routine, lacking in tension. But life in “El Cigarral” wasn't always so peaceful.
In her six years of enforced reclusion, Vera has lost, among other things, the most extensive member of the human body, her own skin. Literally, she has shed her skin along the way.
The skin is the frontier that separates us from others, it determines the race to which we belong, it reflects our roots, whether biological or geographic. Many times it reflects the state of the soul, but the skin isn't the soul. Although Vera has changed skin, she hasn't lost her identity. (Identity and its invulnerability is another of the film's themes). In any case, it is a terrible loss, something atrocious. This is just one of the many losses that place Vera on the verge of death, by her own wish or in the operating theatre at the hands of Dr. Robert. But she is a born survivor and, after many difficulties, she decides that “she has to learn to live within the skin that she lives in”, even if it is a skin imposed by Dr. Robert. Once she has accepted her second skin, Vera takes the second most important decision in order to survive: she'll learn to wait.
Elías Canetti, on his notes about “The enemy of death” (a title that defines very well Vera's attitude to life) of his “Book of Dead People”, writes: “…the uninterrupted pacing of a tiger behing the bars of its cage so that it won't miss the single, fleeting instant of salvation”.
Curiously, that brief instant to which Canetti refers comes to Vera in the form of a tiger, or rather, a man disguised as a tiger.
One day, during Carnival, a man disguised as a tiger manages to make his way to the locked door of the room where Vera is held captive.
This incident breaks the impasse in which the three residents of “El Cigarral” have been living. Paradoxically, Carnival time is the moment when the characters remove their masks and the final tragedy casts its black shadow without any of them being able to do anything to prevent it.
A story of these characteristics made me think of Luis Buñuel, Alfred Hitchcock, all of Fritz Lang (from the gothic to the noir). I also thought of the pop aesthetic of Hammer horror, or the most psychedelic and kitsch of the Italian giallo (Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Umberto Lenzi…). The lyricism of Georges Franju in his “Eyes Without A Face” also came to mind. After evaluating all these references, I realized that none of them fitted with what I needed for “The Skin I Live In”. So I decided to go my own way and let myself be guided by my intuition, after all, it's what I've always done. Without the shadow of the maestros of the genre (among other reasons because I don't know to what genre the film belongs) and renouncing my own cinematic memory, I only knew that the narrative had to be austere and sober, free of visual rhetoric and not at all gory, although in the ellipses that we don't see a lot of blood has been spilled.
I've been accompanied on this journey by José Luis Alcaine, the cinematographer, to whom I didn't explain what I wanted but rather what I didn't want, and he knew how to give the photography the density, the glow and the darkness that suited it best. The musician Alberto Iglesias, the only artist I know without an ego, tireless, versatile, patient, capable of looking in one direction and then looking in the opposite direction if I wasn't satisfied, always subject to the dictates of the story and my way of feeling it. And actors who were generous and precise, despite the obvious discomfort of some of their scenes. I'll name them all: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes, Jan Cornet, Roberto Álamo, Blanca Suárez, Eduard Fernández, Susi Sánchez, Bárbara Lennie and José Luis Gómez.
|Antonio Banderas||Robert Ledgard|
|Susi Sánchez||Vicente's mother|
|and José Luis Gómez||President of the Biotechnology Institute|
|Screenplay||Pedro Almodóvar, with the collaboration of Agustín Almodóvar and based on “Mygale” by Thierry Jonquet, Éditions Gallimard|
|Producers||Agustín Almodóvar and Esther García|
|Cinematographer||José Luis Alcaine|
|Art Director||Antxon Gómez|
|Associate Producer||Bárbara Peiró|
|Director of Production||Toni Novella|
|Sound Editor||Pelayo Gutiérrez|
|Wardrobe||Paco Delgado, with the collaboration of Jean-Paul Gaultier|