As Cool As A Fruitstand

…and maybe as strange. A movie blog.

La Piel Que Habito

Posted by Hedwig on November 23, 2011

Oh Pedro. You magnificent bastard.

I really should no longer be surprised. I did a count – this is the tenth Almodovar movie I’ve seen. I’m used to the vibrant colors and grand compositions by now, and I should no longer be surprised by the twists, the outrageousness, the sheer bat-shitness (bat-shittedness?) of it all. I spent the movie being first curious, then apprehensive, then highly uncomfortable followed by angry, and finally, when the twist finally starts emerging, shaking my head in both disbelief and admiration. Nobody else is foolish enough to attempt these things. But then again, I know of nobody else who could pull it off.

Read more after the jump, but SPOILERS beware. Usually I leave it at that, but really, I loved that I saw this film knowing next to nothing about the plot, and I would strongly recommend that people who a) have not seen this one but b) do want to watch it, stop reading right here.

I want to start by considering the rape-revenge motif, which Almodóvar explores in interesting ways. It’s quite an effective trope: first you get the rape, which is violence but with ‘sex’ mixed in*, and which as a bonus marks the villain as utterly despicable (rape being second only to genocide, and way ahead of murder in the movie short-hand for evil). Then, in the revenge part, the audience has in a sense gotten permission to enjoy the violence dished out to the villain.

In the first part of the movie, Almodóvar seems to be following this trope pretty faithfully. A man invades the house, gags his mother (!), and has violent sex with Vera, the prisoner he finds – she’s admittedly not fighting him off, seeing a means of escape in him, but he ignores her desperation and the obvious pain she is in. Antonio Banderas comes back to the house and shoots him. It’s a jarring sequence, party because the rapist is in a tiger costume. I understand the motivation for this – it creates an ‘out’ for the viewer, creating distance with comedic details – but I don’t quite think it works. It’s too broad compared with the rest of the movie, and alienating. It is, however, a fairly straightforward illustration of the trope, complete with the woman falling into the arms of her rescuer.

Then Pedro starts complicating matters (and if you’re still reading despite the spoiler warning, seriously, stop). A flashback from Banderas’ perspective shows us that his daughter (of which we already know that she committed suicide) was raped, too. Then we zoom onto Vera’s sleeping head, and get … a flashback from the rapist’s point of view. It’s a rather different situation, but it again involves a guy, Vicente, who seems uninterested in consent, and who continues even when it’s explicitly denied/withdrawn**.    The problem is, despite the dire consequences for the victim, it’s not quite vicious enough for the trope, and we see the whole event – and what follows – through the perpetrators eyes. When Banderas comes to get his revenge, kidnapping him and leaving him chained up in a cave somewhere with only a barrel of water for an indeterminate amount of time, it doesn’t feel remotely satisfying. I even found myself excusing the rapist in my head, thinking of mitigating circumstances – I mentally slapped myself immediately, but still. I started getting angry at Almodóvar, even, thinking that this time he’d taken things too far – though I’d have been hard pressed to explain what I objected to most, the multiple rapes, the treatment of the rapist, or the fact that he made me feel sorry for one.

Then, way too late considering my familiarity with Almodóvar’s favorite themes, I realized what the twist was. I understood why the camera zoomed onto Vera’s face before showing us Vicente’s flashback: they are one and the same. Banderas’ punishment is much more elaborate (and, in a rather nasty way, poetic) than just imprisoning his daughter’s rapist: he’s going to make him understand what it’s like to be a woman – conveniently giving him a human guinea pig for his transgenic skin transplant experiments (on a trans woman***, natch – I can just hear Pedro giggling while he thinks these things up).  I doubt the plan included an actual rape, but that’s what happened, anyway – retroactively complicating the first instance of the rape-revenge motif.

There’s a third instance, too. After all, Banderas might not have committed rape, but a gross violation of bodily autonomy anyway. And he gets his. One of the most fascinating aspects of the movie is that it’s hard to know how to feel. Oh, he deserves it, absolutely. But Banderas gives such a sympathetic, tortured portrayal of this horrible man that the resolution doesn’t offer much in the way of satisfaction.

I love many of Almodóvar’s films, but I can’t deny his work can be highly problematic, especially when it comes to issues of gender and sexuality. On the other hand, he does explore these issues in very provoking, interesting ways, and I don’t think he’s ever thoughtless about it. In this movie, for instance, it bothered me how much Vera’s body was filmed and treated as an object, kneaded and molded as something inanimate, even by herself – until you find out that her attitude makes a certain sort of sense. Her body’s no longer her (or him?***), but indeed just something she inhabits.

Directors also use bodies as building blocks, of course, molding them into what’s needed – maybe the movie can even be interpreted as a comment on that.

*As someone who has a hard time watching these types of scenes despite not having any bad experiences in the department, it disturbs me that this appeals to people, but that’s a topic for another day.

**The scene does not make explicit whether she starts out wanting sex, or just goes along with it because she doesn’t know what to do. It’s not very relevant, in any case – the guy continues past the point where consent is clearly absent, and only eventually stops because she bites his hand.

*** Being a cis woman myself, I hope I did well with the pronouns in this piece. I’ve chosen to use the pronoun of the actor playing the character at that point in the story, since the identification of the character is unclear: she announces that she was “always a woman” at one point, but that statement’s surrounded by lies, and the transition itself was, of course, highly unvoluntary.

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