Each month in Horror Queers, queer writers Joe and Trace tackle a horror film with LGBTQ+ elements, a high camp quotient or both. As a genre, horror has historically been an outlet in which to hide and/or explore subversive narratives. For lifelong queer horror fans like Joe and Trace, there’s a delight in deciphering the lingering glances, identifying with out-and-proud and secretly closeted characters alike and reading between the lines. Join us for a monthly dissection of the ups and downs of queer horror, but know that at no point will we be getting Babashook.
***SPOILERS for The Skin I Live In to follow.***
Synopsis: Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), a brilliant plastic surgeon, haunted by past tragedies, creates a type of synthetic skin that withstands any kind of damage. His guinea pig: Vera (Elena Anaya), a mysterious and volatile woman who holds the key to his obsession.
Queer Aspect: It is revealed that Vera is actually Vicente (Jan Cornet), a man that Robert kidnapped and performed gender reassignment surgery on after he discovered that Vicente may have raped his daughter Norma, who committed suicide shortly after the incident.
I caught The Skin I Live In when it started to garner awards attention in the Winter of 2012 and I’ll confess that I never considered it a) a horror film or b) a queer film. Looking at it through fresh eyes for this piece, I can’t believe what I overlooked on that first viewing, probably because I was so invested in trying to piece together the mysterious connection between Robert and Vera. Of course the sex change twist remains front and centre as the film’s climactic lynchpin, but on a second viewing it feels less sensational and more ingrained in the film’s examination of complicated questions of morality.
It’s clear that Almodóvar hasn’t simply structured The Skin I Live In to hinge on the shocking revelation that Vicente and Vera are one and the same; rather the whole enterprise feels like a slow motion car crash of inevitability. Right from the very first scenes, as the prisoner and captor set-up is introduced via Robert’s ridiculously voyeuristic screen, it is evident that their relationship is unhealthy and messed up. The fact that we eventually discover that these terrible events are part of a seriously twisted revenge scheme that (in some part) arose from a misunderstanding makes The Skin I Live In even more disturbing. It’s amazing, but so, so dark.
To me, there are two elements that redefine the film as queer horror. One is the sex change without consent, which essentially makes this a heterosexual nightmare of epic proportions. This isn’t simply the emasculation of a straight man – it is the complete inversion of traditional gender dynamics that finds Vicente transitioning from a slightly cocky stud to a female prisoner with no freedom who is repeatedly raped by men.
The other (and to me much ickier) queer element is the sexual relationship between Robert and Vera that arises in the film’s third act. There are multiple layers to unpack here: Robert’s sexual interest is attributed to Vera’s physical resemblance to his dead wife, but that doesn’t change the fact that both we and Robert know that he’s fucking the man he considers responsible for his daughter’s suicide. Once the truth about Vera’s real identity is revealed, it’s impossible not to reevaluate the sexual nature of his relationship with Vera through a queer lens (ie: Robert is, for all intent and purpose, revenge fucking this man). Add to this a trans reading: technically Vera is, anatomically speaking, no longer male, a fact that is reiterated multiple times throughout by dialogue confirming that Robert is one of the world’s best plastic surgeons.
I’m fascinated by my repulsion to the revelations of the second half of the film because the horror in The Skin I Live In isn’t in a queer or trans reading of Robert and Vera’s relationship. It is the twisted combination of Vicente’s forced sex change and the realization that Robert is a demented mad scientist who has fallen in love with his creation (a spin on Frankenstein with a modern science twist) that makes the film so unnerving. In this way, Almodóvar has crafted a morally complicated puzzle film that requires audiences to constantly shift their point of identification as new information comes to light. It’s fascinating.
Trace, what’s your impression of the film? How did you respond to the shift in sexual identities in the second half of the film? And considering Almodóvar’s very public sexual orientation, do you perceive a gay authorial voice?
It’s interesting you say that you didn’t initially consider The Skin I Live In a horror film, because while I was watching it (for the first time, I might add) I couldn’t help but think “The first comment on this article will be about how this isn’t a horror movie.” But you know what? It’s about a mad scientist performing the most horrific experiments on an unwilling patient, going so far as to perform a fucking gender reassignment surgery on him. Is there anything else that is more terrifying to a man than the removal of his manhood? This is a horror film through and through and I loved it. I hesitate to say that I enjoyed watching events transpire in The Skin I Live In, but I couldn’t look away.
Anyway, the film is absolutely structured around the gender reassignment reveal. I actually feel that when conceiving the film, Almodóvar started with that idea and wrote a plot around it. It’s Eyes Without a Face with a transgender twist. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I find it hard to believe that that plot development originated as a “mad scientist holds a woman captive” concept.
While the gender reassignment surgery is undoubtedly the most memorable aspect of the film, what I couldn’t stop thinking about during the film’s first hour was the themes of male dominance and control. Before you know that Vera is Vicente, you must endure her brutal rape at the hands of Zeca, Robert’s half-brother. Zeca also binds and gags his mother Marilia and forces her to watch the rape on Robert’s monitors. Pair this with the overall plot of a man holding a woman (well, someone who is a woman now) hostage and it’s just repulsive. Almodóvar adds a few other small touches to really emphasize this theme, like the super gross visual of Zeca licking Vera’s image on the television screen (not once, but twice!).
Now about that twist: I can’t deny that it makes for a compelling viewing experience. My mouth was hanging open from the moment that I realized what was going on all the way through Banderas’ dildo presentation which, admittedly, I laughed at simply because the visual of Antonio Banderas standing in front of a bunch of increasingly large dildos is humorous. It’s equally horrifying though because he is trying to train this newly transformed woman how to use them to deepen her vagina! The last hour of the film is so engrossing, and not just because of how shocking it is, but because you are so wrapped up in Vicente’s story.
Unfortunately, Vicente’s loss of identity and mental transition into Vera didn’t fully ring true for me. I almost wish that the surgery wasn’t treated as a reveal, but was rather the end of the first act of the film. I would have preferred the film spent most of its time with Vicente in captivity as we watched him slowly lose his identity and become Vera. In the film’s current iteration it just sort of happens over the course of a few scenes. I still enjoyed The Skin I Live In, but I can’t help but feel it would have been even more effective as a character study as opposed to a soapy body horror film.
What I loved about the film was how it flips the rape-revenge sub-genre on its head. It could be argued that Vicente didn’t rape Robert’s daughter, Norma (there is ambiguity there because while his intent isn’t malicious, he doesn’t immediately stop once she starts saying “no”). For the sake of argument let’s look at it from the stance that he did rape Norma. First you have Robert getting revenge on Vicente for raping his daughter by removing the appendage that makes him a man (this in and of itself could be viewed as a form of rape). Then, as you mention, you have Robert revenge fucking Vicente (as Vera) in the third act of the film. I mean, what? How did this get made? There are so many layers to this film that there is no way to do it justice in a 3,000-word article.
In regards to a gay authorial voice, I can certainly see it. One thing I have always appreciated about Almodóvar’s films is the frank way he handles sexuality. I grew up in a semi-conservative Catholic household and sex was not something we often talked about, so whenever I see it handled so matter-of-factly in a film I get the warm fuzzies. Not that this particular film gave me the warm fuzzies, but Almodóvar’s films often do. He is an auteur through and through, and his queerness absolutely guides his filmmaking style. One particular instance of Norma retreating to the closet when he walked into the room stuck me as particularly on the nose. It actually reminded me of the infamous South Park episode “Trapped in the Closet.” The character isn’t a lesbian, but she is hiding from the man that she believes raped her. Can this be seen as Almodóvar making an observation that LGBTQ victims of abuse often hide in the closet as a way of protecting themselves? I think so.
One issue I wanted to touch on before I turn it back over to you is an issue regarding the MPAA and queerness. The film is rated R for for “disturbing violent content including sexual assault, strong sexuality, graphic nudity, drug use and language.” I don’t know if you’re as much of an MPAA nut as I am, but usually when “Graphic Nudity” is included in a rating reason it means that the film usually includes a shot of genitalia, be it male or female. If I’m remembering correctly, The Skin I Live In does not contain any full frontal nudity. There are shots of Vera’s breasts and some Banderas booty, but no genitalia.
I’m wondering if the term “graphic nudity” was used in reference to the breasts of a transgender woman? The MPAA is notorious for being harsher on films with LGBTQ+ subject matter, but it has gotten better in recent years (that this film didn’t receive the dreaded NC-17 is a sign of progress because it absolutely would have 15 years ago). What do you think: it is because of the subject matter? What makes the nudity in this film so “graphic”?
That’s fascinating because you’re absolutely right that there is nothing in this film that should qualify as “Graphic Nudity” (the key word being “should”). If anything, I would attribute the rating to the repeated rapes, particularly Zeca’s attack on Vera early in the film since it is so uncomfortable to watch. Considering that the MPAA’s website clarifies that their ratings are driven by protecting children and “family” viewing experiences (ie: won’t somebody please think of the children?!), you would think that their issue with The Skin I Live In is that it repeatedly features a woman being raped and spied on.
If part of the film’s rating is due to the sight of a transgender woman’s breasts, it would not only be ridiculous and disconcerting, it would also be incredibly offensive. And yet here we are speculating about it. This is a good opportunity to plug This Film Is Not Yet Rated, Kirby Dick’s great 2006 documentary about the ridiculousness of the MPAA and its shadowy cabal of reviewers. It’s a Must Watch for anyone who has ever looked at the rating of a film and thought “was that person high?”
I’d like to pivot back to your point about the speed of Vicente’s transformation into Vera and how the film might have been better served spending more time with him in the cave. That’s interesting because The Skin I Live In is based on a French novella called Tarantula by Thierry Jonquet. In book form, the narrative is divided into three separate storylines: one featuring plastic surgeon Richard and his captive Eve, whom he prostitutes out to men at parties; one of Vicent locked in a cellar by a madman, and lastly Alex, Vincent’s old friend, who kidnaps Eve in order to blackmail Robert for plastic surgery following a robbery.
As you might expect, the three timelines are not happening concurrently and the climax of the novel is quite different. Instead of Eve confronting and shooting Richard, the novella reveals that both Vicent and Alex were responsible for the assault on Richard’s daughter, Viviane. Alex is shot by Richard and Eve has an opportunity to kill Richard, but demurs, resigned to the realization that she can never return to her old life. It’s never explicitly revealed to be love; it is more akin to acceptance that their lives are now forever intertwined.
What interests me is how the lack of a wife for Richard and the larger role for Alex/Zeca affects the reading of the novella compared to the film. There is no suggestion that Eve has been made to look like Richard’s dead wife and he doesn’t fall in love or sleep with her, which dramatically alters a queer reading. There is a suggestion that Alex plans to rape Eve, which plays a bit like an ironic comedy of errors (he almost fucked his friend!) but the horror of the situation is removed because Alex never learns Eve’s true identity. The kidnapping, as a result, does feel more organically woven into the narrative compared to Zeca’s arbitrary appearance at the mansion in the film, but the novella’s climax loses the intimacy of the film by focusing less on Eve and Richard and more on Alex.
Before we can wrap this up, we need to discuss the ending. To me, the novella’s depressing, Stockholm Syndrome-esque end feels more in keeping with the themes of the film. Despite the ickiness of their situation, Eve and Richard ultimately can’t escape each other. The film, on the other hand, feels more classically Hollywood: the climactic shoot-out of a rapist and the safe return to family clearly identifies Vera as the “hero” that the audience is meant to sympathize with. This is also made palatable by the suggestion from the flashback to Norma’s attack that Vincente didn’t rape her (sexual assault? Yes). This is in stark contrast to the novella, where it is confirmed that he did (though Alex is painted as more of a villain because he sodomizes her). The end of The Skin I Live In feels decidedly “audience friendly,” a feel-good moment on which to end a rape-revenge film, despite lingering questions what Vera’s life will look looming in the silence of the film’s last few seconds.
Trace, what do you think of the film’s ending? Does the novella sound like it has a more appropriate end? Or am I being ridiculous to suggest that there’s anything feel good about the end of The Skin I Live In?
Full disclosure: I had no idea this was based on a novella, so that’s on me. But it does sound a bit different and, just based on the sound of it, I prefer the changes the film made. I think I prefer the film’s ending if only because I think the whole idea of “did Vicente rape Norma or not?” promotes a necessary discussion for the audience to have. This isn’t a black-and-white issue that we are talking about here and it needs to be discussed. Nevertheless, that ambiguity makes the bittersweet ending of the film easier to swallow (bitter because Vera has to come to terms with being Vera, sweet because she murders the bastard that did it to her). Yes, it’s sort of a fairytale ending, but I’m okay with that. Might the film have been stronger with the novella’s ending? I think so, but I enjoyed the catharsis that the film’s climax allowed. I don’t think you’re being ridiculous though. This is some dark shit.
I do find it funny that you mention Zeca’s arbitrary appearance, because that randomness is a usual occurrence in Almodóvar’s films and one of the main reasons I love them. He weaves seemingly unrelated narrative threads together and watching it all unfold is simply magical. I actually prefer the film’s use of Zeca and his absence in Norma’s assault to the way the novella utilizes the character.
I do admit that I think we bit off a bit more than we could chew by choosing The Skin I Live In. It is a fantastic film, but it deserves a more thorough dissection than what we were able to give it in this post. That being said, I’m really excited to continue this monthly series and hope that it resonates with some of our readers. On that note, what do you readers think of The Skin I Live In? Joe and I will be making “Horror Queers” articles a monthly event and will be joining in the discussion in the comments as well so we welcome your input!