Quick Context Summary: The Skin I Live In is a film about an obsessional doctor (Robert) who kidnaps the boy who raped his deceased daughter (Vincente, later Vera) and keeps him captive while he transforms his body into that of a female’s through various surgical procedures.
Even from the title you begin to get a grasp of the ontology of this film. Skin is separated from self, being merely a quality of the self. You inhabit a skin yet you are not that skin. This is, in essence, what ultimately saves Vincente and kills Robert for it is Robert’s obsession and misrecognition of Vincente as Vera that allows for Vincente’s plan to function and allow his escape.
Let me say that this film by Almodovar is perhaps the clearest expression of Almodovar’s own obsessions directly dealing with important questions of sexuality and gender that in previous films have functioned more on the side than at the forefront. In particular, the unraveling of the story is done in such a way that your categorization and understanding of the characters radically changes after one has already begun to form a judgment about them thus producing a space of reflection between these two points.
The film begins with a relationship between a doctor and a woman who appears to be his prisoner. Little by little we recognize that this woman has become his pet project testing his transgenic experiments but we know nothing about her except that there is some sort of eerie resemblance to an absent other which we eventually learn is the doctor’s dead wife. As the film develops we become aware of the fate of his deceased wife and deceased daughter and what they have to do with the production of Vera with the daughter providing the alibi and his wife the model. We thus see a sort of conflation of these two forces in the figure of Vera who is both made to look like his wife while being the same age as his daughter. She fulfills a fantasy of a ghostly return of his wife in perfect form before her accident. This psychic investment will later betray him.
The conflict between Vincente and Robert is present throughout the entire film up to the point when Robert expresses his desire for the reconstructed wife in Vera at which point it becomes visible to Vincente that he can perform for Robert what Robert expects in his fantasy of his reanimated wife and in this way be able to escape. This allowance can only happen by Robert disavowing the origins of Vera as Vincente. First of all, as Vincente is turned into Vera we see him given various feminine accoutrements as if he is being told that the physical change is not sufficient, now you must also perform the social role of woman even in the absence of others. This appears to be simply naturalized from the perspective of Robert so that Vera’s need for make up and dresses appears self evident. This self evidence is also what makes Vera’s avowal of desire for him completely acceptable for him for Vera looks like his wife and even if Vera used to be a male with a female sexual object choice, now that he’s a she the change of sexual object choice to male is accepted as obvious for him. This simplistic gender schema that Robert accepts as self evident allows for Vincente’s trick to function and gets to the heart of the title of the film.
If we can think of sex, gender, and sexuality separately then we can understand that a person is biological male or female yet acts socially as a man or woman and has a sexual object choice and that these are all independent though we push certain normative bundles such as the female woman with a masculine object choice and the male man with a feminine object choice. These standard bundles allow for people to believe in more simplistic gender schemas such as the conflation between sex and gender and the idea that aberrant desire denotes an incomplete formation of sex/gender thus showing inauthenticity of being. That is, the gay man as defective thus preserving the idea that maleness is tied to heterosexual desire because you are not fully male if your desire is “wrong.”
In regards to the film, Robert appears to accept the simplistic gender schema so that, for him, Vincente, by virtue of having his body transformed from have male organs to female organs, must also naturally want to “act like a woman” and also desire men as women are supposed to do. Because this is obvious to him, there is no cognitive dissonance or confusion when Vera tells him s/he wants him though there is also the misrecognition of Vera as his returned dead wife functioning which is also compelling him to forget Vera’s origins. These two things may help explain his total trust in Vera as well as his mother’s distrust. She has nothing at stake in regards to Vera so she can always already see Vera as the transformed Vincente.
The title thus describes the fact that Vera does not exist. Vera is a mask as well as a fantasy that covers over and obscures Vincente. Vincente lives inside of Vera and ultimately uses Vera to escape his prison. The relationship between Robert and Vera/Vincente in the latter part of the film is thus articulated on many registers. We have Robert’s fantasy with Vincente playing the part of Vera, the naturalized woman, but beneath this, we also have Vincente as the master using the body of Vera in this capacity. It’s interesting to consider, then, that within the Vincente/Vera persona we have a sort of depth structure. Outwardly, we have a female body who also performs feminine gender (for now) being controlled by Vincente. Within this one being we have an interesting articulation of Lacanian concepts since Vincente (as subject and master) is using Vera (as form and fantasy) in order to be the desire of Robert (the other). As such, Vincente exploits the assumption of his having feminine subjectivity in order to dupe Robert into a sexual relationship (which incidentally always fails (even technically); every time Vera and Robert have intercourse, Vera experiences too much pain to continue).
The end of the film produces an interesting moment in its subtext vis-a-vis the start of the film. When Vincente finally returns to his mother’s store, he first speaks to his former co-worker referencing the earlier encounter they had in the film where he flirted with her and she denied him citing an incongruity between his gender and her sexual object choice (she’s a lesbian). Now, of course, he could have a lesbian relationship with his co-worker since his body is now congruous with her sexual object choice. This moment is interesting because it serves as a way of problematizing the simplistic gender schema that Robert seemed to have. If Vincente is Vincente in all ways except body then that means he still feels like a man in essence and he’s still attracted to women as before so that his expression of himself now, in the absence of surgery to return him to something resembling his former body, would entail lesbianism. This plus the moment where his mother learns that her son has been physically transformed into a women ends the film allowing for the audience to consider where this incredibly charged moment might lead.