Pedro Almodóvar presents amazing studies on what it is to be human, ranging from sexual orientation to gender identity to familial relationships. While he often goes for the dramatic, he did manage to take a step in the direction of body horror with The Skin I Live In, an adaptation of Thierry Jonquet’s Mygale. Not even touching on the complexities of the revenge story (especially considering that a lot of the film’s plot could be constructed as an issue with multiple misunderstandings), this one has a lot to offer in the realm of gender identity. While not gory, this one exposes the physical and psychological damage of enforcement of an incorrect gender identity, making it an apt horror story in this age of trans rights.
Make no mistake, Vicente is always Vicente in this film, despite that he is renamed Vera once his external appearance is altered to resemble a cis woman. The process of transformation is in itself a study in degradation: we first see Vicente (Jan Cornet) as a male chained to a wall, pantsless, hosed down and half-starved. There’s a moment of terror while he’s being shaved, which seems to echo the loss of control over a portion of his manhood: he is not permitted to shave his own beard, and is left at the mercy of Robert (Antonio Banderas), who could easily use the vulnerable position to kill him. It’s no surprise that he loses complete control shortly thereafter, and is subjected to a vaginoplasty against his will as punishment for the rape and death of Norma.
Some may consider it just (which is a point we won’t argue here today, though I will say that this film did a great job of presenting multiple facets of a complex situation, and there are no angels in that arena); however, Almodóvar takes the opportunity to demonstrate the pure horror of the scenario by slowly stripping away the external appearance of Vicente as a male. Despite that his sex organs are now female, Vicente is still very much a male mentally. This starts a progression of exploration, as we get to journey his forced transformation with him. Cornet did a beautiful job with emoting, and managed to convey the shock and horror of the change without having to say much. We see him standing on a chair to view his new genitalia; we see the tears in his eyes, the way he backs away from Robert as Robert explains how the expanders work. “Your life depends on that orifice,” Robert tells him. “Breathe through it… It will hurt at first.” The transformation is physically as well as psychically painful: we then see his legs spread in a strapped pair of stirrups as Robert performs an inspection of Vicente’s new vagina, marveling at the progress as Vicente quietly cries, completely degraded on a medical table. As if the new vagina wasn’t bad enough, Robert tells Vicente why he has done this to him, as well as, “We’ve just started,” signalling that there is even further transformation ahead. Cut to a beautiful dissolve where Cornet’s Vicente becomes Elena Anaya’s Vicente, and Robert has officially christened him “Vera” while feeling up Vicente’s new breasts post-surgery. Stuck in a body for which he did not ask, Vicente is then confined to a body stocking, which works to both cover the offending new external shell while shaping him into Robert’s new vision.
Vicente does not willingly accept this transition, and fights back through both attempts on his life and attempts to maintain his sanity. After first overpowering Robert, Vicente attempts to slit his own throat rather than live as a woman. When that fails, he channels his rage into destruction of the stereotypical external aspects of womanhood which he can impact: the clothing and the makeup. We see him shred the dresses provided, tearing into them with both hands and teeth in pure rage. We see the rejection of the makeup, but the retention of the eyeliner and lipstick, which become coping mechanisms for life as a man trapped in a woman’s body. We see the words repeated on the wall: “I BREATHE. I KNOW I BREATHE. OPIUM HELPS ME FORGET.” His thoughts cannot be taken from him, and he expresses this by asserting his voice – his male voice, which has been altered with medication and surgery – in the only way he can. Vicente also turns to yoga to help cope after hearing an explanation on meditation: “There’s a place where you can take refuge, a place inside you, a place to which no one else has access, a place that no one can destroy…. It’s a place where you’ll find peace, where you’ll find tranquility, freedom.” Art and cloth dolls follow shortly thereafter, with busts being made to help him cope with the isolation from both the world and his gender identity.
Despite these hardships, Vicente does persevere by clinging to his masculine identity as Vicente over the new assignment as Vera. Vicente shakes his head when it appears that Robert is going to shoot him after his rape at the hands of Zeca (Robert Álamo), itself its own commentary of the sexual violence trans individuals face; even Marilia (Marisa Paredes) urges, “Kill her! Kill them both!” in what we do not realize at that moment as an act that could be construed as a mercy for the suffering Vicente. Robert has labeled “Vera” a “survivor,” and as such, Vicente does prove him right. Vicente gains Robert’s trust and plays along with the new gender identity by wearing makeup and dresses from that point onward, even making a go at attempting sex to achieve this end. This is used to ultimately kill his tormentor, and we get to see how “Vera” is still Vicente after all. He reads the wall chronicling his sorrowful captivity; he sees the bloodstained bed and stares at the chair that helped him confirm the first steps of his physical transformation; he kisses the picture of Vicente in the newspaper pre-transformation; he walks out of the house and goes to his mother and the woman he had fancied before the whole ordeal. The last words of the film are “Soy Vicente,” an assertion of masculine identity. In the end, Vicente is still Vicente, though the world sees him as Vera. In that two-word sentence, we get the sorrow of Vicente being trapped in a woman’s body. We get to bear witness to the pain of a person whose outside does not match the inside. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a horror that many of us cannot imagine. We get the full blast of it placed in stark terms: we had a man that was changed into a woman against his will, and now Vicente has to endure life in a body that will never be what he needs it to be. His will stripped, he now has to endure the rest of his life in something that is not truly him. Let that sink in for a moment: he was forcibly robbed of something that he felt was integral to his identity. He has to rebuild that sense of self; life will not be normal for him. Now take that lesson and apply it to a man that feels he was born in the wrong body. Think about it for a moment. How absolutely horrifying is it that people are criticized and unable to afford the procedures needed to give them the identity they know they have? How much does it suck that the appropriate gender – the one the individual feels to be true, the one that may not match the outer shell – is not recognized? Could you live with that hardship? Do we even have a word to describe a feeling like that?
In the end, we don’t get to continue on Vicente’s journey. It’s hinted that he’ll wind up with Cristina and live with her as a lesbian, but really, that’s far from a happy ending. We don’t get to further see the misery of being trapped in the wrong body. We don’t get to see how this young man copes with carving out a new identity in the wrong skin. Almodóvar brought a complex revenge story and wound up giving the most sympathy to the man forced into a woman’s body. The result is a challenge to us: can we put ourselves in Vicente’s shoes? Are we survivors, or would we choose death? In a world that sees more trans suicides and violence every day, maybe the point of all this was to shed light on the individuals that keep on going, despite what the outside projects.