Makeovers in the Movies: The Skin I Live In (La Piel Que Habito)

As January ends, it’s occurred to me that I haven’t posted anything about makeovers. And since January is National Makeover Month (in the US media), it’s possible that I have been neglecting my duties here at Wild Beauty. But since we’ve had almost a month to see which New Year’s makeovers/cleanses/tips/resolutions worked and which didn’t, maybe now’s a good time to reflect on the process.

Creating a new self, even cosmetically, is quite an undertaking. How far will you go? How far should you go? Is technology your ally or your enemy? If you go under the knife, will you come out beautiful? Or a monster? Who gets to decide what’s beautiful (or monstrous) anyway?

Futuristic technology and the pursuit of perfection meet heartbreak and control in The Skin I Live In (La Piel Que Habito), Pedro Almodovar’s glossy modern Frankenstein tale. One doctor’s obsessive quest to create physical perfection drives him to madness – and crime.

We first meet Dr. Robert Ledgard at a medical symposium, where he’s lecturing on the crucial role of the face in personal identity. He should know: he’s one of the few surgeons who’s successfully performed a face transplant. He’s also created a new, burnproof skin material by combining pig and human genes. But his work is controversial – largely because no one can verify his research process, and those close to him have their suspicions.

How can he be so secretive? He has his own clinic – in his home, which he inherited from his father, another successful surgeon. This most private clinic, which allows celebrities to seek face lifts in complete privacy, has been closed to patients for some time. But there’s activity going on there, as the doctor works on his new skin product. He’s obsessed – his wife was horribly burned in a fiery car accident, and her suffering (and his loss) haunt him:

His wife is now dead, but lives on in the name of his new skin, Gal. And as he returns to his home/clinic, we discover something else: the Doctor is holding a young woman captive, and observing her every move through cameras wired into the house. Vera is the experimental subject he can’t reveal – he’s been replacing her skin with his new invention, and he periodically tests the heat resistance by applying a blowtorch flame to her body. At this point, there’s no damage (and only slight pain), but you wonder how this highly unethical test went before he’d perfected the material?

Dr. Ledgard is insane, but not in an impulsive, uncontrolled way. He’s a brilliant man who’s been sent over the edge by a series of tragic events, and his wealth and intelligence can’t protect him – they enable him. As he obsessively works on his new skin with Vera they develop a rapport, and even affection, although she has no way of knowing when he might let her go. And he has created perfection, in one groundbreaking way: Vera’s skin is perfect and undamageable. She’s beautiful too, which doesn’t go unnoticed by Dr. Ledgard – he has a giant screen where he just sits and watches her in her room:

But brilliance and obsession cannot cure heartbreak. Dr. Ledgard has lost himself in an obsessive pursuit of perfection and control, and even if he remakes his patient physically, he cannot control her mentally. Like Pygmalion, he falls in love with his creation – or is he falling in love with reminders of his lost wife? It’s hard to tell, but since his devotion to Vera is largely voyeuristic, it’s likely that his love for her is not as true as he thinks.

Dr. Ledgard’s unethical makeover raises questions about personal surface and identity. He’s changed Vera into his own perfect creation – but is she heavenly or monstrous? As he’s sacrificed his reputation and medical practice into this obsession, he’s become monstrous himself. What is perfection anyway? Can we have it? Should we turn ourselves inside out to pursue it?

Most of us won’t be splicing our genes with pigs’ anytime soon to have perfect skin, but we do all sorts of things in the pursuit of more perfect selves. After watching the makeover gone horribly wrong in this movie, maybe we don’t have to feel guilty about our imperfect pores – rather, we can sigh with relief that we didn’t try that hard.

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