The Skin I Live In is a horror film in which everyone, on some level, is a monster. Some behave monstrously, while others see themselves as creatures. The only real distinction between the monsters is gender, which becomes the crux of the entire story. Almodóvar's film is remarkable for many reasons—the outlandish plot; its enticing blend of florid, rustic and aseptic color palettes; the ever-thickening atmosphere—but none more so than its ingenious, audacious, incisive commentary of gender identity.
The director wastes no time shaking up the audience. He introduces us to Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), a skilled surgeon working on "transgenesis," experimenting on human DNA to improve the species. In his house he keeps a woman, Vera (Elena Anaya), whom he locks in an upstairs room and denies her any sharp objects. Clad in a flesh-toned body stocking, Vera looks like an animated medical textbook drawing, anatomically correct but blank. Her presence disturbs the tranquility of Ledgard's villa, an offsetting feeling only exacerbated by the surgery clinic the doctor built on the grounds that resembles the secret lab of a mad scientist (which it is). These touches disrupt the film before it has truly begun, and things only get worse from here.
We learn that Ledgard, inspired by the suicide of his wife after a car accident left her horribly scarred, is trying to create a form of human skin resistant to burns. He tests this new flesh on Vera, and Almodóvar stresses her guinea-pig state with a beautiful, dreamy, but horrific fade from a headless medical dummy with lines marked for patches of skin to Vera lying in the same chair with the same lines marked on her. Almodóvar, along with cinematographer José Louis Alcaine, never oversells the sadism of these scenes, instead creating a lush but eerie feeling that fits with the melodramatic flourishes of revenge that slowly filter into the film, matching two dissimilar patterns along the same beat.
That oneiric approach informs even the twist, revealed through a flashback clearly rooted in Vera's perspective. While she sleeps, we see in her dreams not the woman but a young man, Vicente, a cocksure, self-consciously masculine boy who preens like a '50s greaser. Perhaps compensating for working as a seamster in his mother's shop, he hits on the lesbian clerk and later rides out to a wedding clearly looking to pick up a girl. He succeeds, chatting up Ledgard's daughter and taking her out to the garden to get some action. But his aggressive come-ons go too far, and the already shaken Norma goes completely insane and eventually kills herself. Ledgard, now wholly insane, kidnaps the boy and, as we see through a series of surgeries, turns him into Vera.
Does the reveal truly count as a twist, though? In a narrative sense, absolutely; it reconfigures the character dynamics and plunges the film into even darker territory. But it's hardly a twist the way we think of it, with a sudden reveal calculated to send the audience reeling. Anyone paying attention will put together the truth a few minutes into the extended flashback, but that in no way spoils the mood. The truth underneath The Skin I Live In is shocking, but Almodóvar does not simply drop it on the audience, instead elongating the jolt into the same sustained, sinking feeling that permeates the whole film. Almodóvar, having refined his flourishes over the years, is one of the few people who can cross as many boundaries as he does while still displaying a clear amount of restraint.
Furthermore, by not staging this as a quick reveal, Almodóvar gives the audience time to rethink the entire film to that point and what follows, which allows for a deep consideration of gender politics. We've already seen how gender affects the type of monstrosity shown in this film: Ledgard cages Vera, watches her on surveillance monitors, and has his way with her when he pleases. Contrast that active villainy to the wife, whom we see post-accident in flashback. Scarred beyond all recognition, she recoils when she finally sees her reflection and cannot bear to live. Where Ledgard hides his monstrosity beneath a handsome and soft-spoken veneer, the wife sees herself as a hideous beast.
Vicente/Vera bridges the split and clarifies the commentary. Vicente, though not evil, is brash, arrogant, defiant and sexually aggressive. He feels remorse for going too far with Norma, but he also thinks he can just move on with his life. Vera, however, is submissive, not only to Ledgard but Zeca, the half-brother who ran off with Ledgard's wife. Zeca returns and, mistaking Vera for the wife, proceeds to break into her room and rape her. After a time, Vera even defends Ledgard when suspicions begin to mount. His real face now obscured through surgery, Vicente internalizes his new feminine state and acquiesces to that gender role. It's worth noting that most of what aggression Vera still exhibits is self-directed in the same way that the wife and Norma take out their agonies on themselves where Zeca and Ledgard brutalize others.
Through Vicente/Vera, Almodóvar makes plain that gender is merely a social construct. The degree to which Vicente accepts the submissive role of the female is stunning, and it starts from the moment Ledgard gives him a vaginoplasty. Marilla, Ledgard's servant, functions as the steely matron, complicit in Ledgard's atrocities. But when she comes to the villa in flashback to look after Vera, we see her elect to wear a servant's uniform, willingly stepping back into her role as caregiver, and she even sacrifices her son in the present to maintain order for the child who grew up to be her master. As men, Ledgard, Zeca and Vicente are bestial, indulging their appetites without a care in the world. But it is the women who are made into creatures, be it Vera's lab rat, Marilla's beast of burden or the wife's hideous alien. To further stress the role gender plays in the characters' behavior, Almodóvar sparks the violence of the falling action from a glimpse Vera gets of her old self in the paper, triggering a last vestige of masculine self-determination that breaks the spell of submission.
This elevates The Skin I Live In from a first-rate genre mash-up to one of the most daring films in recent years. Almodóvar doesn't chuck in transgender forms for the sake of shock but to examine the ways that the binary opposition functions and enslaves us. This explains the stylistic intermingling feminine melodrama and masculine horror-thriller, and why neither style offers a respite. In this film, color—the passionately red blood, the offensively bright yellow of Zeca's Carnival costume/disguise—signals trouble as much as the sterility of Ledgard's lab or the ascetic conditions of Vera's sparsely decorated room.
Faces play a key role in The Skin I Live In, with Almodóvar routinely placing a male face in front of a surveillance monitor of Vera. Sometimes the man looks down upon a tiny screen, other times Vera's face looms over the watcher on a giant TV. In both cases, some force pulls each face toward the other, enticing the male, bracing the female for what she knows is coming. Almodóvar's films routinely delve into feminine oppression, and not always by evil men (Vicente has that same perverted innocence to him as Benigno from Talk to Her), but The Skin I Live In explicitly deals with the gender split and its primal, horrifying impulses better not only than any of his own movies but any film that comes to mind. Brilliantly paced and thematized, The Skin I Live In is the probably the most unorthodox, most entertaining distillation of feminist theory ever made by a man.