I’ve got you under my skin, I’ve got you deep in the heart of me….
Hands stroking skin, feeling the smooth seamlessness of surface, the temperature differentials and moisture and pulses and lumps of what lies below. To touch a human body is to learn textures, contours, the fit of skin over fat and bone. It is also to gain a knowledge of that body and yet to recognize how little can be known about what is beneath the skin. The taste, smell, feel, and sight of skin may be the closest we get to knowing–biblically or otherwise–another, but it is also the site where we come up most intimately with not knowing. I am my skin; it defines and delimits me through its colour, elasticity, age. But my skin is also not me, acting as it does as a barrier that protects and contains me. What is contained within skin? What spills out of it? Skin is an organ that stretches to hold and delimit an individual, shaping and defining her through its colour, elasticity, and porousness. But it can be torn or sutured or grafted or flayed or pierced, a fragile container that cannot always hold itself together. Anne Anlin Cheng says, “Skin is, after all, by nature a medium of transition and doubleness: it is at once surface and yet integrally attached to what it covers. It also serves as a vibrant interface between the hidden and the visually available” (28). How, then does skin define and delimit subjectivity and relationality?
Swedish porn director Elin Magnusson has a 2009 short film entitled Skin, in which two figures clad in full-body stockings caress each other, tracing their hands over the contours of undifferentiated body parts. Then they begin to cut holes into the stockings, revealing lips and fingers and genitals. They turn out to be a man and a woman who now have access to oral and penetrative sex. It is a powerful fantasy of revelation, of achieved intimacy.
Because the scene starts with flesh-coloured “skin” on, the cutting to reveal human skin seems like a delicious exposure of vulnerable insides. But of course, what’s underneath the artificial skin is…skin. What, the film seems to ask, would it be like to have sex without skin? The eroticism of bones and muscles and blood pulsing, flowing, steaming, all that exposed and given to the other. Take me, have it all, no barriers. Because without that turned-inside-outness, how close are you to the other, and how do you know how much you both are concealing from each other? Just two beings, encased in skin, full of darknesses and unknowabilities, exteriorities rubbing against each other….
Pedro Almodóvar’s depictions of Vera in her bodysuit in his The Skin I Live In resonate strongly with Magnusson’s film. For much of the beginning of the film we only see a woman in a stitched flesh-coloured body stocking, the contours of her body sharply defined, her beautiful face and head free above the suit.
The plot of the film is melodramatically complicated: a renowned plastic surgeon, devastated by the disfiguring burning of his wife, kidnaps Victor, the young man who he thinks has raped his traumatized daughter, and gives him a series of operations in which he turns him into a woman with a skin that cannot be pierced or burnt but instead exhibits an unblemished quality. This newly created woman, Vera, is a more perfect and indestructible replica of his dead wife. The doctor is fascinated with his creation, incessantly gazing at and touching her beautiful skin, and his ensuing attraction lures him into a relationship in which he becomes emotionally captive to his physical captive. Vera’s first violent attempts at escape, in which she threatens to cut her own neck so as to destroy the doctor’s creation, subside into an almost calm captivity, in which she is finally freed from her locked room and allowed to sleep freely by the doctor’s side as his new love. We could almost begin to believe that she wants to be his woman, but then she kills him and goes back to Vicente’s mother and to the lesbian friend who Vicente had wanted to date. In a perfect Almodóvarian twist, Vera/Vicente stands in front of the woman who rejected him for his masculinity and offers instead a beautiful woman. Transformed, he can be what she wanted all along.
As viewers, we are asked to share in the doctor’s scopophilia, viewing the large screen that hangs in his study, and watching her alongside him. His diegetic camera that he uses to zoom in on his captive is the same camera that allows the viewer to gaze at the unbroken and unmarred perfection of her skin as surface upon the screen.We see him and share with him the haptic visuality of both marvelling at her beauty and trying to understand what we can about her through lingering on her eyes, her lips. Her discerning look straight at the camera confirms to him and us that she is aware of our gaze, and we struggle to know what her expressionless dispassionate look signifies—resignation, defiance, hate, curiosity? When the doctor attempts to have sex with her he examines her synthetic skin with the pleasure of his own creation. It is perfect in its fluidity, unbroken and unmarred, a visual surface that the eye can stroke just as the doctor’s hand does. Does its impenetrability, fire and mosquito proof, make it capable of transmitting feeling? Does the person trapped in that skin feel it to be part of him/her?
In a poor review of the film, Stephen Cole of The Globe and Mail brings up this question by saying that the doctor can’t shoot his creation because her skin would “trampoline-bounce” the bullet and hurt him not her (this seems far-fetched, and Vera knows that the reason that the doctor does not want to kill her is because she is his toy, his experiment, his possession). But it’s an interesting question; what weapon could be used against her? Hercules defeated the Nemean Lion with the only tool that could be used against its indestructible pelt: the lion’s own claws. What are Vera’s claws? Maybe they are the weapon that Vicente used to inadvertently harm the doctor’s daughter: his penis. Vaginal penetration is the thing that seems to elicit the strongest physical response from Vera, making her wince with pain. One suspects that Vera is never going to get used to heterosexual penetrative sex, never see it as anything other than a violence done to her. The Achilles heel, then, of Vicente/Vera, is the vagina that was created from inside him, that lay inside his male body, an interface between inside and outside.
Vera, like so many of Almodóvar’s other heroines who are trapped in a sexual relationship with a man who is possessive, crazy, abusive, and obsessed with her—Broken Embraces, Talk to Her, or Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down, to name just a few—plays the role of compliant and responsive woman with convincing feminine charm, so that the audience has moments of becoming complicit with the man, believing her to be everything she looks. The camera and the man’s eyes linger over her eroticized breasts, eyes, lips, and seemingly willing body as she gives herself to him, “take me I’m yours.” In Spanish, the “I’m yours” would be gendered: “soy tuya.” When Vera first begins to interact with her captor as a woman, she uses the feminine to speak of herself.
What is is that Almodóvar is trying to say about what it is to inhabit the feminine? Is it that “woman” is always a construction, always in the state of becoming? That to be embodied and interpellated as a “she” always feels like an uncanny fit? After Vera kills the doctor, she kisses the picture of the awkward weak Vicente as if to say that the past self was the true self, that this skin that he now inhabits is nothing more than a container that constrains. Maybe Almodóvar knows something about the alienating interpellations that are imposed upon a beautiful woman who cannot recognize herself in the objectifying gazes she encounters on a daily basis.