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Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In

Identity in flux and the trauma of our decisions

Identity is a concept that is becoming more and more relative in our everyday lives and modern medicine and modern tolerance allow people to live life as their true selves, or certainly truer than their body at birth allowed them to.

Written by


Dec 6, 2022

© Sony Pictures Classics

It’s at this crossroads, where being meets becoming, that we encounter Pedro Almodóvar’s highly unusual film about an unforeseen perspective on identity, in the midst of a story as complex and as nuanced as only cinema can bring it to life and transform it from the novel it originated as.

Like the many layers of our skin, The Skin I Live In has a depth to offer that many directors wouldn’t dare to seek in a story so multifaceted, that at its core is a story about exacting vengeance where justice can’t be done anymore. The non-linear structure that Almodóvar chooses to introduce us to his wide array of characters is crucial in the beginning, as we almost feel that the film is just as interested in its side characters as it is in its main characters, namely a surgeon, his daughter, an unusual patient, and a housekeeper. Alongside their stories, we meet a young boy, who takes drugs, works in his mother’s sewing room and has romantic aspirations for his coworker, who is not interested in men, however, and rejects his advances.

The drug component of the young boy’s lifestyle is what connects him to the surgeon’s daughter when the two of them first meet and connect over an ultimately fatal misunderstanding about the kind of drugs that each one of them takes and why. You see, one of them is in therapy and takes the prescription kind of drugs to help them cope with a traumatizing event from their past witnessing death first-hand, while the other takes the recreational kind to get high, to party and to have a good time with the opposite sex. Unbeknownst to either of them, during their encounter one of them will bring the spark that lights the fire, which will in turn cause more trauma and which will alter both of their lives forever.

© Sony Pictures Classics

“El arte es garantía de salud.” (Art guarantees sanity.)

Fire also plays an important part in the surgeon’s life: Cut to the surgeon’s stately home, that once served as a renowned clinic until he withdrew to treat his wife, who became a burn victim after a car accident. The treatment he seeks for her is nothing short of mad science adjacent, as he sets out and ultimately accomplishes to find a way to grow human skin — an improved, fire-resistant one even — to give his wife back her life. It seems a cruel irony of fate that it's that very life that gets in the way of the surgeon's plans and hopes for his wife's recovery, setting events in motion that will impact the aforementioned young boy and the surgeon's daughter. Trauma causing trauma causing trauma in return you might say, and each one brought on by one-sided decisions that shall not be revealed here.

Then there is the unusual patient living in the surgeon’s home — being held there as it turns out — who bears a striking resemblance to the surgeon's wife but seems to be someone else entirely. Someone, who has written dates all over her room's wall to keep track of her captivity and who has found a way of dealing with said captivity through yoga and mantras that also made it onto the wall like "El arte es garantía de salud." (Art guarantees sanity.). It’s only through living inside her mind, it seems, that she is able to come to terms with the conditions of her existence and, the fact that suicidal thoughts also come into play as the story progresses, again provides a meaningful connection to not just one but two of the aforementioned characters.

The housekeeper in turn is the fuel for many of the characters at play here and it could be argued that, despite her background role, she is a crucial character in the plot as none of it would have been possible to unfold in the way it does had she not existed or had she not made the choices she did in her own life, and it’s one of those choices that literally comes back to torment her in the flesh, despite being dressed up in a made-to-look-harmless tiger costume, which could not be more fitting for the type of character that hides in it.

As you may have been able to tell by this point, I am being deliberately vague as to what connects all these characters and what the unforeseen perspective of the film is that I mentioned in the beginning. I feel it is important for you to discover that for yourself and to hopefully be fascinated by the kind of interpersonal nuances Almodóvar finds in this story, choosing to tell us something uncomfortable to reveal that choosing to inflict new trauma on someone will never heal your own.

The Skin I Live In is a fascinating film and one that also finds unexpected beauty in tragedy for a character we least expect it for, and it closes with one of the perhaps most realistic and succinct conversations to explain something that, quite honestly, feels unreal when said out loud.

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