The Skin I Live In (review)

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Antonion Banderas and Elena Anaya in The Skin I Live In

Men Who Hate Women

The grinding noise that’s grating painfully on your ears as you read this is me, clenching my teeth as I try to be fair and not spoil The Skin I Live In for those who’ve yet to see it, which would be most of you. It’s tough to delve too deeply into why I hate this movie so damn much without spoiling. But I shall behave myself. That’s what ladies are supposed to do, right?

That crash was me throwing something breakable across the room.
I’ve heard this from many a film lover: “Oh, Pedro Almodóvar! He’s such a feminist! He loves women!” I don’t see that. The evidence of his films suggests that he doesn’t truly know any actual, genuine, flesh-and-blood women, but only watches them from afar with a sort of transfixed jealousy, in awe of a certain type of very conventional beauty and frustrated that he cannot get any closer. None of his films that I’ve seen — disclaimer: I haven’t seen all of them — suggests that he has any idea of womanhood apart from something that looks more like drag than anything else. What it means to be a woman, Almodóvar’s (Volver) movies tell me, is all about clothes and makeup and high heels and irrational explosions of crazy emotion, and that all of this is infuriating to men at the same time that it’s irresistibly sexy, and that this is all natural and not a cultural construct that could easily be completely different. In Almodóvar’s world, womanhood is narrow and confining, but no one — neither men or women — sees it that way. It’s all just wacky and wonderful and sexy and who could possibly think otherwise?

As a woman myself, this infuriates me.

The Almodóvarian wacky and wonderful takes a very dark turn here, an expansion into something horrific. Here, women are even more weird, more strange, more Other, fragile creatures to be protected and prettified by men, not people in their own right but property for men to do with as they please. What makes a woman a woman here is nothing more than a vagina and breasts. Here, rape is therapeutic — because what makes a woman a woman is her fuckability, and that a man or men actually do fuck her. Then she’s real. Then she’s ready to be accepted into the larger world.

The Skin I Live In is My Fair Lady meets The Human Centipede. It’s disgusting and hateful, and all the more so because of its arthouse veneer of respectability, of unquestionable beauty and truth because it jumbles up its timeline and makes us read subtitles and sports gorgeous cinematography.

Oh, and it features Antonio Banderas (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Shrek Forever After), suave and smooth and devastatingly handsome, as Robert Ledgard, doctor and medical researcher. Sure, he has alienated his colleagues with his work on an artificial skin replacement for burn victims that uses genetic material from other species, a huge no-no. And it does appear at first that Almodóvar — adapting Thierry Jonquet’s novel Tarantula [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] — intends some genuine horror in Robert’s mad-science experiments on mysterious Vera (Elena Anaya: In the Land of Women, Van Helsing), whom he keeps locked in a room in his remote mansion and keeps grafting new bits of skin onto, even though her body is clearly perfect, not a burn or a scar on her. But then why is she wearing that weird body skinsuit, as if she were something physically precarious?

I can’t say more without getting into things that, clearly, Almodóvar hopes you will find shocking and dreadful. And I certainly did find them shocking and dreadful, though not in the way he almost certainly intended.

You see, Almodóvar, for all that he supposedly loves women, obviously loves men much, much more, and doesn’t think much of women beyond their value as entertainment and diversion for men. For here, being a woman is a punishment. It is a deviation from the desirable state of maleness.

There’s a word for a man who thinks this way. And it’s not feminist. It’s just the opposite.

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