Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Starring: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Jan Cornet
Well, I definitely wasn’t expecting that.
I have a fairly relaxed spoiler policy on this blog – I know it’s generally bad form to give away plot details when you’re reviewing something, but it’s not like I’m a noted tastemaker or this is Empire magazine, so I assume that if you’re bothering to read something like this, it’s because you’ve already seen the film and are interested to see what someone else made of it. Having said all that, I’m just going to say SPOILER ALERT now nice and clearly because it’s pretty much impossible to discuss this film at length without mentioning the major twist that’s revealed in the final third, and it’s such an unexpected twist (or it was for me, at least) that I’d hate to ruin the film for anyone who hasn’t actually seen it, so y’know. If you read beyond this point, you have been suitably warned.
So, to matters of plot: the film is about a respected plastic surgeon by the name of Robert Ledgard (Banderas) who is working on a form of artificial skin that’s resistant to burns, and has been conducting illegal experiments on humans. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the scientific community is horrified by this, but it’s fairly clear from the outset that Ledgard is somewhat unhinged and is unlikely to pay any attention to them. Back at his house, Robert and his housekeeper Marila are keeping a woman called Vera imprisoned. Vera has clearly been there for some time, and oscillates between eerie calmness and the occasional desperate attempt to escape her confinement. While Robert’s away, Marila’s son Zeca turns up at the estate, asking for his mother’s assistance in hiding him for a few days because the police are after him for a robbery. With great reluctance, Marila agrees – but it’s not long before Zeca discovers Vera’s presence and almost instantly becomes obsessed with her, breaking into her room and raping her. Ledgard comes back and kills Zeca.
Pointing out that all of this happens within the first quarter of the film, give or take, should suggest just how much plot there is in this movie, and Almodóvar is quite happy to keep the details of that plot on a need-to-know basis. I spent so much of the film going “eh?” that at one point I pretty much just assumed I was stupid and clueless, until my boyfriend confirmed that he understood about as much of it as I did. But the questioning is all part of the experience, making it so much more rewarding when the answers are doled out much further down the line. This is a risky strategy – in the hands of a less-assured filmmaker this might prove so infuriating that the viewer might give up entirely, but Almodóvar trusts that he’s earned our indulgence, and it’s a worthwhile gamble. The structure weaves around, from present to past and back again, involving characters that seem unrelated – so that when the connection is revealed, it’s all the more satisfying.
That connection is the key part: we discover that Zeca was having an affair with Ledgard’s wife, Gal, and they attempted to elope but were involved in a terrible car crash, where Gal was heavily disfigured – hence Ledgard’s obsession with developing burn-proof skin. After accidentally catching sight of her own reflection, Gal took her own life, leaving Ledgard and their daughter Norma severely traumatised. Then there’s the tale of Vicente, who meets Norma at a wedding and begins having sex with her, only for her to have a panic attack halfway through and withdraw her consent – and Vicente responds by knocking her out and running off. Ledgard catches up with Vicente and kidnaps him, performing gender-reassignment surgery on him against his will. That’s the twist: Vera is Vicente.
An audacious twist like this carries with it a lot of risk – not just suspension of disbelief (though a fair bit of that is involved as well), but the idea of gender-reassignment as a punishment is a subject that needs to be very carefully handled. However, I think Almodóvar gets away with it: the reassignment is not the punishment, it’s merely one part of a lengthy process where Ledgard takes a life that he deems worthless, because he sees this man as his daughter’s rapist (the truth is muddier – the issue of consent is an interesting point in the second half of the film, first between Vicente and Norma and then later between Ledgard and Vicente/Vera), and uses it to his advantage, by turning Vicente into a replica of his dead wife and using him for his experiments. That Ledgard is a cold, distanced character is crucial here: we’re never expected to agree with his methods or condone his behaviour, and this total violation of Vicente’s consent is a completely disproportionate response to what happened.
The film has been described as a horror film without the screams, and as someone with an interest in the body horror genre, I was impressed with the extremes that this film went to – the idea of having someone perform gender-reassignment on a person against their will wasn’t something that had even occurred to me prior to watching the film, but it’s certainly something that’s very troubling to contemplate. For all the film’s accomplishments, the ending relies slightly too much on coincidence – after Vera murders Ledgard and Marila and escapes, she rushes back to her mother’s dress shop where her lesbian ex-colleague (who rejected her when she was Vicente) recognises her – to be truly satisfying, but I think this is genuinely one of those films where the ending isn’t nearly as important as what happens on the way there. It’s a film that I watched and found myself wanting to watch it again almost immediately, now finally aware of everything that happens, to see if I viewed certain scenes differently the second time around. Then again, I think it’s rather too disturbing a film to watch twice in quick succession – I think a sizeable break before approaching it again might be a sensible idea.