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Film

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7) “Write a critical study of a recent Spanish or Latin American film or play that you have seen, and that has made a social or political impact in the country in which you are living. You should bring into your study criticism and reviews, both from the press and, where possible, from academic sources, and…discuss the ways in which the film has been received and analysed, making comparisons with other films where appropriate.”

Almodóvar ’s 2001, La piel que habito, received mixed reviews from Spanish critics, one favourably calling it an “irracionalidad transcendida” whereas Spanish film critic Carlos Boyero called it a “notable idiotez”. However, most critics agree that this film merits a second viewing in order to appreciate the rich texture of the film, in which a lonely and haunted plastic surgeon (Banderas) becomes dangerously entangled with his personal experiment, Vicente, or “Vera” (Anaya) whom he believed had assaulted his mentally ill daughter, provoking her suicide. The film is the director’s first exploration of science fiction, containing an amalgamation of themes concerning gender and sexuality identity, whilst at the same time exploring the prison house of the self. In this essay I will discuss the ways in which these main themes are manifested in the plot and cinematography, their effect and finally the way in which Spanish critics have received Almodóvar’s latest work.

Entrapment, or, the prison house of the self, is the confinement that all Almodóvar’s characters in Piel are subjected to in some form or another. It is through this mental and in Vera’s case, physical, confinement that tension is cleverly built up in the first half of the film, showing Almodóvar’s ability to manipulate the viewers until revealing the film’s twist. The opening shot is of a sleepy Toledo, in which the looming presence of “El Cigarral” can be seen behind bars, foreshadows this theme of incarceration. The bustle of Madrid is nowhere to be seen in this Almodóvar film, emphasizing the isolation of the characters. Furthermore, Vera’s confinement, the physical isolation of her cell and her body suit are juxtaposed with the palatial house in which she is held prisoner; whereas Robert’s solitude is all the more intensified by it. However, each characters confinement directs them in opposite directions, Vera’s prison is unlocked both literally and symbolically the moment that Robert kills his unknown half-brother Zeca, and inadvertently unlocks his own passion for Vera.

Almodóvar incorporates subtle visual clues throughout the film, warning us of the story’s violent climax; the colour red permeates throughout, indicating perhaps not only that blood will be spilt, but representing the idea that one’s true identity, one’s blood, does not change despite external transformation. Despite this, the use of clinical style close-ups that follow the slow, precise movements of Robert’s hands as he examines the centrifuged blood samples or applies layers of “Gal” (his synthetic skin) to a dummy, can be seen to pull apart the layers of identity- only to reform them to his own liking. Robert finally loses his identity in imposing his desires upon Vicente, who, despite this, remains the same as we hear him say in the films closing lines, “Soy Vicente”.

In contrast to many of Almodóvar’s previous works such as Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios or La Mala Educación, Piel most certainly contains less obvious humour. However, despite the majority of critics disagreeing, arguably there are comedic elements when the plot is at its most darkest and pivotal moments, which add a depth to the characters that rivals Almodóvar’s previous work. For example, we witness Robert’s schadenfreude in the brutal way he calmly and clinically answers a horrified Vicente (“Qué me has hecho?”) or Robert taking pleasure in politely informing him about the daunting post-operative “care” he must carry out. Similarly, in the uncomfortable scene in which Vera is being brutally raped by Zeca, the absurdity of his carnival tiger outfit renders the scene so ridiculous that it can be viewed as comical, echoing the rape scene in Kika. While some critics argue that these moments are terrifying, most agree that Almodóvar is at his best when his characters portray the absurdity or horror of their predicament with subtle humour, Almodóvar himself saying that “I’m not joking about rape at all, but sometimes in the course of the most terrible events, when somebody has decided that they’re going to survive, they may say or do things that appear comic to the spectator.”
Freud famously wrote that “anatomy is destiny”, the notion that one’s body, or more specifically, one’s genitals define our identity. Piel is a film that plays with this idea, not only dismantling one’s identity as previously mentioned, but the problems that arise when creating a new one. Through his characters, Almodóvar seems to be telling his audience that regeneration is possible, if we tread carefully. Indeed, just as Robert is intoxicated by the smell of his wife’s burnt flesh, he becomes drunk from the power of playing God over Vera, which ultimately leads to his own destruction, from the metaphorical “cancer” that Marillia warns him of. On the other hand, Vera is able to channel her energy through yoga, reading and writing in order to find a place that is untouchable to anyone else, and thanks to this mental safe-haven she is able to survive. Almodóvar also uses the setting and backdrop of the film to raise questions about identity with the enormous works of art that adorn El Cigarral. In one painting, we see a naked man and woman in Olympian poses, however they are faceless, suggesting a unknown identity, or a lack of it, also insinuated by the headless mould that Robert uses for fabricating his burn proof skin. The way in which language is used in the film also evokes questions about identity, Robert says “el rostro nos identifica” whereas Vera’s silence shows her resolve to guard her own identity, as she silently, but frantically shreds up the dresses intended for her, thereby assimilating the new rostro or identity that Robert has fashioned for her. However, Almodóvar shows us that eventually Vicente understands that in order to escape, he must first embrace Vera’s identity, for it is the only way he can manipulate Robert.

In Piel we also see the theme of transformation and regeneration manifested in the way in which the characters interact with their surroundings. Initially we watch Vera as she moulds clothes into faceless figures, and later we see Vicente dressing up a mannequin in his mothers shop. In this way, Vera’s actions represent a process of creation that contrasts to Robert’s character, who can only manipulate objects; for example, scientifically modify blood or even his bonsai trees- contorting them to grow the way he desires. Robert has tried to impose transcendence on his victim, whose body he hopes will become the site of his redemption, therefore we can regard this film a type of meditation on the resurrection of the flesh- indicated even in the name of Ledgard’s house, “El Cigarral”, alluding to the insect that dies only to be resurrected after shedding its skin.

Responses to Almodóvar’s latest work have been mixed: Carlos Boyero, who’s long standing criticism of Almodóvar is widely known, suggests that Piel’s characters are neither stimulating or inspiring in comparison to the flamboyant characters of La mala educación, or Todo sobre mi madre. One the one hand, the lack of compassion in the film is in fact when compared to other Almodóvar works, but on reflection it can be seen to generate a state of apatheia rather than compassion, which frees the viewer from the traditional “revenge plot” and allows us to see the film, and the characters for they truly are. For example, the portrayal of both the victim and captor is less conventional than in other Almodóvar films such as Átame, guiding the confused viewer into the unknown, which most certainly adds a layer of depth to the characters and outcome of the plot. However it is the film’s minimalism that has captivated some critics, Luis Martínez of El Mundo calling it, “La película más contenida y minimalista del cineasta. (...) Radical, voraz, quirúrgicamente perfecta. Tan precisa como abrumadora." These references to the film’s clinical perfection and precision stand out throughout the film; the visual aspects of the film are as sharp as the plot, and are intensified by the many, lingering overhead shots of crime-scene-like tables of medical equipment.
Critics from around the world have remarked upon the film being a modern remake of Frankenstein or Pygmalion and the links are indeed clear, but Piel also resonates with viewers in Hitchcockian fashion through the voyeuristic experience the viewer is forced to take part in. It is this notion of sharing the captor’s position, of being the voyeur as much as he is, that has left many viewers uncomfortable. Another problem that arises from Piel is the plot structure. On one hand, the fragmentation of Piel is an essential way that the absurdity of the plot is dissolved, Almodóvar is perhaps feeding us the story line bit by bit, making it easier to swallow. Nonetheless, many critics have remarked upon one difficulty arising from the flashback sequences of Robert and Vera. They argue that the flashbacks disrupt the natural progression of the captor-prisoner relationship, and the resulting fragments are not enough to make their relationship real or believable. In either case, the Robert’s relationship with Vera pushes the boundaries of the themes of sexuality and identity, as in other works of Almodóvar. Lastly and most predominantly, critics have remarked upon the cyclical nature of Almodóvar’s work or the recurrence of themes. Admittedly, this is true; most notably the themes of rape/kidnap (Kika,¡Átame!and Habla con ella), voyeurism and illegal drug use (almost every Almodóvar film). Whilst some would argue that Almodóvar obsessively returns back to these themes because he lacks imagination, whereas others insist that Almodóvar is one of the rare filmmakers that has the creativity to come back to them with a fresh viewpoint. In fact, Piel is the first film in which transsexualism has no positive value associated with it, Vicente’s sex-change is a forced mutilation that Vicente must accept in order to survive. Furthermore, Almodóvar has always shown his admiration for strong women, in films like Todo sobre mi madre, ¿Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto? and Matador to name a few: however in Piel, Almodóvar takes a different approach to his female protagonist; she (Vicente) has to earn the audience’s respect and trust before any pathos is created towards her.
In an era of “torture porn” and “extreme cinema”, Almodóvar manages to piece together a haunting psychological thriller, unencumbered from the traditional horror-film gore motif that raises questions on many aspects including bioethics, gender identity and corporeal transgression. Through the films elegance, captured by cinematographer José Luis Alcaine, Almodóvar’s passion burns through with precisionist style, producing a brilliant yet warped vision of the problems of both assembling and annihilating one’s identity. Almodóvar himself does not attempt to preach or proclaim a moral position on the matter, rather his movie a darkly playful and masterful meditation on plasticity and perfection, on devotion and ritualized resurrections, and consequently on the pleasures and possibilities of spirit and flesh alike. Lastly, the plot is made even more harrowing and beautiful by Alberto Iglesias’s exquisitely composition, which infects the film at its darkest moments and highlights another interesting dynamic raised; the abuse of power. Given the isolation of “El Cigarral” in the remote Toledo, dissimilar to the politically infused backdrops of so many others of Almodóvar ’s works, perhaps this political statement does become slightly blurred, but it leaves us wondering whether Almodóvar is in fact making a pointed political statement about the abuse of power in the hands of those who have it.

Bibliography

DVD’s * La piel que habito, Pedro Almodóvar, Pathé, 2011. * Átame, Pedro Almodóvar, Twentieth Century Fox, 2004. * La mala educació, Pedro Almodóvar, Twentieth Century Fox, 2004. * Todo sobre mi madre, Pedro Almodóvar, Twentieth Century Fox, 1999. * Tacones lejanos, Pedro Almodóvar, Optimum Home Releasing, 2009. * Los abrazos rotos, Pedro Almodóvar, Cameo, 2009.

Books * Kakoudaki, Despina. All about Almodóvar: A Passion for Cinema. University of Minnesota Press, 2009. * Almodóvar, Pedro & Willoquet-Maricondi, Paula. Pedro Almodóvar: Interviews
Conversations With Filmmakers Series. University Press of Mississippi, 2004. * Smith, Julian Paul. Spanish Screen Fiction: Between Cinema and Television. Liverpool University Press, 2009. * Foster, David William. Spanish Writers on Gay and Lesbian Themes: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook. Greenwood Publishing Group, 1999. * Allinson, Mark. A Spanish Labyrinth: The Films of Pedro Almodóvar. I.B. Tauris, 2001.

Web Resources

* Carlos Boyero, ¿Horror frío? No, horror grotesco, El País, 2nd September 2011. * http://elpais.com/diario/2011/09/02/cine/1314914404_850215.html * Jordi Costa, La piel que habito, * http://www.25fotogramas.tv/los-criticos * Andrew O’heir, Almodóvar builds a new Frankenstein, Salon. October 2011. * http://www.salon.com/2011/10/13/almodovar_builds_a_new_frankenstein/ * Luis Martinez, Esencia de Almodovar, El Mundo, May 2011. * http://www.elmundo.es/elmundo/2011/05/19/cultura/1305797291.html

--------------------------------------------
[ 1 ]. Jordi Costa 25 fotogramas
[ 2 ]. Carlos Boyero
[ 4 ]. Pedro Almodóvar as quoted in an interview with Andrew O’Heir, October 2011.
[ 5 ]. Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume 11. James Strachey, Anna Freud. Hogarth Press, 1975.

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