The Skin I Live In is a harrowing tale of scientific hubris. Niall Walker watches and wonders: can we avoid science dictating our ethics?
The Skin I Live In
A man sits on a wooden table surrounded by ornamental cups of coffee and fresh orange juice. He pours honey on his pancakes, licks up the stringy remnants, and checks his cardigan. A moment later, the same man enters the room next door, a laboratory, carrying blood in a plastic container. Within seconds of having stood from his breakfast, he is dressed immaculately in plastic gloves and a lab coat.
Even gods have to eat. Antonio Banderas’ character - Dr Robert Ledgard - in Pedro Almodovar’s 2011 psychodrama The Skin I Live In is a scientist whose talent endows him with divine powers: powers which, through his hubris, he uses vengefully and destructively.
His house’s architecture symbolises the contradictions within the man himself: a doctor who dismisses the hippocratic oath; a man who frets over the cleanliness of his cardigan, but will track down a man who raped his daughter, alter his gender and fuck them.
It is an act committed with the grotesque vengeance of Zeus, and the mutational fetishism of a Satanist. Almodovar squeezes this out through a captivating use of dramatic irony, as the flashbacks and non-chronologism unravel a story that bewilders and disgusts in equal measure.
The plot revolves around Ledgard’s enforced gender reassignment of his daughter’s rapist. Yet Almodovar’s film shows this in reverse, presenting to the audience a young woman living under the surgeon’s ever-watchful eye, before we are illuminated with the context behind her captivity.
Gender surfaces as a key concept for reflection in the film, and science’s capacity not only to disturb but violently redefine its boundaries as an underlying commentary.
While Ledgard’s operations are dystopian, science’s ability to muddy the divide between M and F is longstanding. Gender reassignment procedures began in the 1930s; today, advancements in genetic engineering potentially allow for full gender alteration in vitro.
Almodovar’s protagonist, Ledgard, is unwavering in his mutilation of Cruz, and carries it out with a clinical efficiency which only exaggerates the action’s grotesqueness. At play is not only a representation of science’s capabilities, but a visceral critique of its tendency towards hubris: Banderas’ character is seen earlier in the film arguing with other scientists about his discoveries. That he pursues it regardless, and on an unwilling subject, magnifies the danger of his professional arrogance.
What is your Ethos?
To understand the major conflict of the film, however, we must return to that surreal domestic scene. When Ledgard enters the operating chamber, his ethics depart him. These are ethics which, at the dining table, extend to his exemplary manners towards his maid - Marilia - and the rigorous consideration of his attire.
Can ethics and science co-exist? This is a question which extends beyond this film, and demands more than simply a philosopher’s input in to scientific practice.
Let’s return to gender, for instance. Perhaps one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century is Judith Butler, whose 3rd wave feminist text Gender Trouble needs little introduction.
One of the most compelling criticisms of her ideas on gender as a social performance, however, is its disengagement from science. Even as she attempts to break down our belief in the biological certainties of gender, we must appreciate that even as a contested and fluid discourse, science’s discoveries massively affect our understanding of our own identities.
To what extent does our biology activate gender, and to what extent is this reified by society?
This is a question, too, that I will humbly decline to probe. It is only for us to say that Almodovar’s film is one which engages in a subtle, subversive and wonderful way with these questions, and leaves us with a woman on screen, played by a female actor, whose every physical and social action is feminine; yet who, under the skin and performance and vagina, is still defiantly a man.
Images from: https://conversations.e-flux.com/t/judith-butler-on-public-assembly-precarity-and-trump/5145 and http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3641896/Health-chiefs-tell-coffee-cancer-bay-Consuming-drink-regularly-prevent-certain-types-disease-womb-liver-cancer.html and http://bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/3478093/queer-fear-the-skin-i-live-in/ and http://mickeymaxwell.blogspot.com/2012/07/pedro-almodovars-film-skin-i-live-in-as.html