The Skin I Live In Explained- Identity And Obsession Through The Lens Of Gender Roles
The Skin I Live In is a tragic exploration of fixation, pain, and mutilation that culminates in a bizarre psycho-sexual twist you won’t soon forget.
There is nothing so grotesque as the artificial beauty of man-made aesthetics. The Skin I Live In by Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar is a coldly provocative look at vigilante justice and Stockholm Syndrome. It is about who you are at your core. I was unprepared for the level of indifference the characters feel for one another despite their behavior crackling with fevered fascination. This is a film that radiates from the outside in—twisting and turning itself into knots. Unlike many revenge stories that sear the screen with rage and impotence, Skin chills with icy manipulation and unresolved want. There is nothing loving about this film, only selfish need.
The Skin I Live in is the story of Robert and Vera predominantly. The central conceit and all the moral questions swirl around these two polar opposites. Robert is a brilliant plastic surgeon who has a hazy view of law and order and an even hazier view of medical ethics. Vera is a young person who has had their whole life highjacked in the name of revenge and later obsessive desire. Robert thinks he loves Vera, but instead, he loves what she represents. She is the physical embodiment of his late wife and his surgical prowess. Essentially, Robert is in love with himself.
So many of the characters are vile. Robert’s half-brother Zeca returns to the house early in the first act and ties up Marilia. Robert and Zeca do not know they share a mother, and likely both would deny they share any DNA. Robert and Zeca are opposite sides of the same warped coin. According to Robert and Zeca’s mother, both of her sons were mentally ill, just in very different ways. Zeca was a thief and drug dealer. He lived on the streets and did what he had to to survive. Robert was a calculated, singularly focused genius with a penchant for myopic thinking. They both make catastrophically selfish decisions throughout The Skin I Live In.
Roberts’s beautiful wife Gal met Zeca years before when Marilia hid him from the authorities. Gal, who presents as a victim of a terrible accident, was also an adulterer. She and Zeca were having an affair and tried to elope together before a fiery car crash nearly took her life. Zeca escaped and left her for dead. Although Robert is clearly unstable, Zeca is no better. At least Robert didn’t leave her to burn. Knowing what we know about Zeca, who is cruel and criminal even to his mother, Gal’s morality is questionable at best. She seemingly fell in love with not one but two madmen. It doesn’t exactly paint the picture of sanity or sound moral judgment.
In the months following the car accident, Robert tried to mend Gal’s injuries. He kept her away from mirrors to not alarm her about her appearance, but one day as she was looking out at her daughter, she caught her reflection in a window and flung herself to her death in front of her daughter. As a result, her daughter suffers from severe social anxiety. After a stay in a mental facility, she and Robert attend a wedding where Vincente meets her. The two go into the garden and begin a sexual encounter that does not end well.
She becomes distraught and tries to stop his advances but he had taken pills earlier, and instead of immediately backing off he places his hand over her mouth to stop her screaming. She passes out and he flees the scene. Robert finds his daughter, who wakes up confused, scared, and very traumatized. She later commits suicide. Robert blames everything on Vincente who he kidnaps and experiments on.
The film, which is told in three acts, is not straightforward. At first, who and what Vera is is a mystery. She seems to be a fragile young woman who has been through a terrible event. Little by little, the absolute horror of her life unfolds. Vera is actually Vincente, and everything that has happened to him was nonconsensual. Here is everything you need to know about the thoughtful film.
Vincente is Vera
The twist that is revealed in the second act is Vincente has been transformed into Vera. Throughout the film, the woman we have been following is Vincente, who was surgically altered into Vera. Vincent is both predator and victim. He pays the ultimate price for his transgressions. As a woman, being raped is one of the very worst things we can imagine. Films like Irreversible, Revenge, and I Spit On Your Grave exploit that premise to show the darkest of society. For a nontransgender man, I imagine having their genitalia changed would be one of the worst things. Vincente did not want to become a woman. Robert took that choice away when he began molding him into the image of his late wife. Robert fell in love with his creation. He loves the image he has of Gal in his mind and the image he has created out of Vincente.
For six years, Vincente had to endure surgeries and imprisonment. Everything he knew about himself was stripped away. Only his inner perception of himself remained locked in his most private thoughts. Even after his transformation, he didn’t lose sight of who he was. He tried to escape and slit his throat, choosing death over a life with Robert. Later, in the final act of The Skin I Live In, when he had the chance to run with Marilia, he did not escape because, for a brief time, he had surrendered to his new life. He still remembered who he was deep inside, which is why he bought the dress he wore at the very end that he tried to have Cristina try on at the beginning of the film, but he was giving up his gendered identity.
This is why he bought lubricant for intercourse with Robert. If his plan all along was to escape, he had many chances to do it that day with only Marilia as his guardian. When he saw the picture in the paper of Vincente, it triggered his memory of his former self. That one single look at his former self wasn’t enough, though, which is why Vera lies to the other doctor about being kidnapped. Vincente had resigned himself to be Vera. When Vera went downstairs looking for her purse, she saw the picture again and remembered the gun hidden in Roberts’s desk. Vera shot Robert and Marilia and fled to his mother’s dress shop.
As a queer reading
Vincente was a straight man before everything happened to him. Whether he actually raped Norma is irrelevant. I personally believe there was a sexual encounter that he initially thought was consensual, but because he was under the influence of drugs didn’t realize it had transitioned into assault until things had escalated. The flashback seems to lend credence to this as well. In his panic, he made an abysmal decision and tried to silence her, resulting in her becoming unconscious. Vincente didn’t set out to rape Norma. He presents as a fairly typical if a somewhat cocky heterosexual man. What he becomes is something altogether different.
Out of revenge, Robert gave him gender reassignment surgery and held him hostage, while experimenting with him. Robert fell in love with his monster that looked like his dead wife. He had forgotten entirely that Vera was really Vincente, which he witnessed by calling Vera “bitch” when she tried to escape the first time. Even from that point reasonably early one in The Skin I Live In, he was she to him. Robert controls and shapes everything around him, including bonsai trees, his family, and his house. Vera was just one example of many of the things that he transformed into something he liked better.
Vincente didn’t become queer; he became Vera. That is an important distinction. Conversion therapy doesn’t work because no one can make themselves or anyone else something they aren’t. Vincente became Vera in mindest; thus, his sexuality stayed the same; his identity changed. Whether or not Robert is queer is more interesting. He is highly delusional, but it would take a special kind of delusion to forget that Vera was Vincente, who he thought raped his daughter, which led to her suicide. To now be in love with Vera highlights just how insane and closeted the man is. His love was a possessive all-consuming love.
There’s a weird sense of symmetry to what Robert does to Vincente that gets lost in the strange love he later develops for his creation. Shortly after the surgery, to Vincente’s horror, he has to insert dilators into his newly formed vagina to ensure it does not close up and deepen the cavity. He must penetrate himself just as he is accused of forcefully penetrating Norma. The Skin I Live In is ultimately about rape, control, and identity. Vincente assaulted Norma and Robert continuously hurt him. As Vera, he was held hostage and raped by Zeca and Robert.
As comically arresting as it is to see Antonio Banderas instruct Vincente on the use of increasing larger dildos for any woman, this scene was uncomfortable. It is symbolic of rape and control. It was also a precursor of things to come. Why is a deep vaginal canal necessary if Robert didn’t already have the idea to have a sexual relationship with Vera? Vincente may have lost himself briefly, but Robert did not. When Vera chooses to run home, it doesn’t matter if he is Vera or Vincente, only that he is home.
The ending of The Skin I Live In
After six years in captivity, Vera/Vincente returns to his mother’s dress shop and is able to convince Cristina and his mother that he is Vincente. What happens next is anyone’s guess. It feels cheap to think Vincente, who was in love with Cristina, who was gay, now stands a chance with her, but the spawn of that odd idea won’t let go. The film is tragic and exploitive in a way that leaves you feeling dirty for having had those thoughts. Although by no means scary, there is a horrific quality to The Skin I Live In. To have your very essence ripped away and molded into someone else’s ideal is unimaginable. I guess the real moral of the story is no one can steal who you are deep inside if you don’t let them. You can stream this film on HBO Max right now.
As the TV/Streaming Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre tv. I grew up with old school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. When I’m not watching and writing about my favorite movies and series, I’m introducing my family to the wonderful world of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. My only regret, there is not enough time in the day to watch everything.