Pedro Almodóvar is a director that keeps certain themes and motifs present in multiple films. At the very least Almodóvar enjoys exploring the same topic or topics in multiple films so that multiple approaches can be explored in order for the topic of interest to be fully defined. Such is the case when it comes to Talk to Her (Pedro Almodóvar, 2002) and The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodóvar, 2011). At a glance, these two films do not appear to be too similar to each other. But despite the fact that nine years and three full-length films by Almodóvar separate them, much is contained within the films to link them to each other. It would be unfair to say that the films are overly similar in all aspects though, as their various differences are what make them so effective when they are compared to each other. Through Talk to Her and The Skin I Live In, Pedro Almodóvar shows that the silencing of female characters, or characters that are presented as female, is actually an opportunity for these characters to be empowered in new ways and break free of their respective oppressors.
We will begin in 2002 with the characters of Benigno and Marco and the two women whom they, respectively, are dedicated to: Alicia and Lydia. Talk to Her focuses on a pair of relationships. One is comprised of Marco and Lydia, with Marco being a reporter and Lydia being a rare female bullfighter. The relationship between these two is mutual, though the film hints at severe communication problems between the two. Eventually, Lydia is brutally gored by one of the bulls she is fighting and as a result falls into a coma. This leads us to the second, and more problematic, relationship in the film: Benigno and Alicia. This relationship is between Benigno, a male caretaker at a clinic, and his patient, the comatose ballerina Alicia. Unlike the relationship shared by Marco and Lydia, the relationship between Benigno and Alicia exists almost entirely within Benigno’s head, leading to an explicit perspective bias.
Throughout Talk to Her, the audience is given an intimate look at the respective relationships that Benigno and Marco are engaged in, but only from the perspective of the men. The camera stays with the men in both of these relationships, only focusing on the women involved in them when the men themselves are. In the case of Marco, we only see Lydia when he does. When Lydia runs from her house terrified of a snake, we witness this action from the car where Marco is waiting for her. The camera then follows Marco as he enters the house and Lydia remains in the car. In fact, Marco first hears of Lydia by watching her on a television talk show. The audience witnesses this event as well, but only from Marco’s perspective. The camera makes no attempt to seek out Lydia by herself or even allow the audience to see Marco from her perspective.
The same is true for the relationship between Benigno and Alicia. In this case, though, the relationship is less than a mutual one such as in the case of Marco and Lydia; and instead the audience witnesses the most one-sided relationship in the film. Benigno’s obsession with Lydia is first told to the audience by none other than Benigno, and because of this the perspective of their interactions is given an even more skewed slant. Whereas the relationship between these two is less of a mutually friendly one and more of a one-sided obsession on the part of Benigno, the narrator remains oblivious to this fact. Once again, the audience is only able to see Alicia from Benigno’s perspective and when Benigno does. Even though the problematic nature of the relationship is apparent from the first instance of Benigno telling how the two of them first met, the film does not act upon these elements by way of any of its characters, with the lone possible exception being Alicia’s concerned father. But other characters in the film assuage even his concerns, and no one acts on what is obviously a ticking time bomb until it is far too late.
It is almost appropriate then, that both of the principle women in the film end up in comas. After all, the film has not given them any real agency, and so they are relegated to the ultimate role of silence. In effect, by putting his female characters in comas, Almodóvar is able to relegate them to the ultimate object of masculine desire. Immediately prior to her accident which lands her in a comatose state, Lydia not only tells Marco that the two of them need to talk to each other, but more specifically, that she needs to be the one doing the talking. This talk never occurs, however, as Lydia is immediately, and ultimately permanently, silenced. It is appropriate, and also telling, that the force that happens to be the silencer for Lydia is an ultra-masculine one, and one that is occurring in an equally ultra-masculine setting at that. Lydia’s violent goring at the horns of the bull she was fighting cannot be said to remove her from the film, but instead it changes her status and she continues to speak in Marco’s flashbacks. But saying that Lydia has truly been in the film up until that point would be unfair, since she has only been present through the lens of Marco.
The same is true for Alicia, but to an even greater extent. Alicia is in a coma for a vast majority of the time that she is present in the film, as opposed to Lydia who begins to exit the film once she enters her comatose state. As mentioned, the audience’s first exposure to Alicia as something other than a silenced and unconscious human being is through the extraordinarily warped lens of Benigno. And as the film continues, the perception of Alicia is expanded to some extent, but this is only through the additional, masculine lens of Marco. This lens is hardly one that is not problematic, though it would be unfair to label Marco as someone who is as misguided as Benigno. Marco shows an eerie fascination with Alicia, possibly because he hopes that he might be able to understand Lydia better through Alicia. But instead of coming to understand Alicia, or even Lydia himself, Marco’s perspective is warped through Benigno’s perceptions of how to deal with the fact that he most important women in their respective lives are unconscious. “You have to talk to her.” Benigno says to Marco, and while this is not bad advice, it is telling of the overall theme of men silencing women in the film. The same is true for what Benigno “hears” from the unconscious Alicia. He is hearing what he wants to hear, believing what he wants to believe, and none of these things are in any way actually from anywhere other than within his own head.
In the end, both women fall victim to their respective men imposing their visions upon them. Marco is less guilty of this than Benigno, but he still holds ultimately false ideas about the woman that he is loyal to. Once it is revealed to him that Lydia was planning to leave him in order to back together with El Niño de Valencia however, he immediately cuts his ties with Lydia and his only further shown interest in her is when he hears of her death some months later. Once again, a man defines Lydia as she is “transferred” from Marco to her former, or perhaps current, love interest. One could choose to speculate on the honesty of the claim made by El Niño de Valencia, but the important takeaway from the interaction between Marco and him is that two men are making decisions about Lydia without any possible input from her, and that another man has now warped Marco’s perception of her.
Alicia, on the other hand, suffers much more from an imposition of views than Lydia does. Benigno is far less in touch with the reality of the situation than Marco or El Niño, and this leads to his ultimate transgression. But Benigno does not believe that he has crossed a line, no matter who tries to tell him so or what happens to him because of his actions. He does not consider his rape of Alicia to be a rape at all, but rather a normal interaction between two people who love each other. Even when Marco tries to explain to him that his perceived relationship and feelings towards Alicia are not normal, Benigno is resistant and ultimately unaccepting. Benigno does not allow anything to interfere with his vision of the woman that he perceives himself to be in love with, and ultimately Alicia is defined less and less as a person herself and more by how Benigno views her. Even when others enter the film that might define Alicia in a way outside of the way that Benigno does, such as Alicia’s former dance instructor, Benigno’s vision of Alicia overpowers theirs, and he is allowed to continue on with his twisted fantasy. Benigno continually imposes upon Alicia, and this is only ended when the severity of his transgressions comes to light.
But Benigno is not the only one of Almodóvar’s protagonists to be rightfully undone by his transgressions. Robert Legard in The Skin I Live In is ultimately undone, even killed, as a result of his repeated violations of another human being. Though it is true that there are not many apparent similarities between Talk to Her and The Skin I Live In, Almodóvar cleverly integrates several themes and motifs between the two films and as a result the two become practical sister pieces to each other. The Skin I Live In picks up on the theme of the silencing of women and takes it in a new direction as opposed to Talk to Her, while at the same time upping the scale of the transgressions committed to a new, extreme level. Whereas Benigno may remorselessly rape an unconscious woman, Robert attempts, and possibly succeeds, in destroying the identity of his respective victim. We will not debate which of the respective crimes are more heinous, but it should be recognized that the crimes committed by Robert are of a far more absurd scale. Similar to Benigno, Robert “…has no regard for [Vera’s] existence as independent of his omnipotent wishes and fantasies” according to Alessandra Lemma writing in A Perfectly Modern Frankenstein: Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In (1292-1293).
The Skin I Live In focuses on the obsessive but brilliant surgeon Dr. Robert Legard and his hybrid patient/victim Vera. Robert holds Vera at his home, which doubles as his clinic, and there he runs experiments on her as he tries to give her skin that is strong enough to withstand direct contact with flame without any damage. Vera, however, is not happy with this arrangement and she rightfully feels that she is not a patient but a prisoner, and one that Robert cares little about the desires of. Vera is not given any agency initially, and she does not have anyone vying for her best interest outside of herself. She begins the film silenced by Almodóvar, and as the film continues and Almodóvar is able to demonstrate just how helpless Vera appears to be, the overall sense of her silencing only grows stronger. The balance of power is almost entirely tilted in the favor of Robert, the overbearing male presence in the film.
As expected, women in The Skin I Live In are put in a precarious position. That is to say, there are not many women present at all. The sole constant female presence is that of Robert’s mother, Marilia. And though it may initially seem that Vera is a notable female presence, it is later revealed that she is not a woman at all, but rather a young man upon whom Robert has forcibly imposed a sex change. Because of this, Vera should actually be referred to as Vicente, (though for the sake clarity in the essay Vicente will be referred to as Vicente when he is still sexually male and as Vera when he is sexually female). As a result of this, the film gives the audience a false female presence and even after the history of Vera is revealed, the film still seeks to misguide the audience by way of not stating whether or not Vera is accepting of her new sex imposed upon her by Robert. Robert is even portrayed as “heroic” according to Domenico De Cegile in Identity And Inability To Mourn In The Skin I Live In (1312), as he saves Vera after an attempted suicide, but this is a further oppression of Vicente’s agency as well. It is only at the conclusion of the film that Vera reveals to the audience that he is not accepting of his imposed sex, and he does so by killing those who have brought about this change upon him. The “slipperiness of gender,” mentioned by Ben Walters in Gut Crazy, is dealt with heavily in the film as a result of this, and it does not and should not provide an easy answer of the audience.
Robert being portrayed as “heroic” is an interesting observation considering that this positive portrayal of a heinous figure further links The Skin I Live In to Talk To Her. Specifically, this distinction links Robert to Benigno, in that both figures are displayed as somewhat or completely sympathetic and possibly even having their respective women’s’ best interests at heart. For Robert, this possibility is brought on by the fact that he has given Vera extremely advanced and resilient skin, and also that he is ready and willing to undo any harm that might come to Vera, whether through external forces or by Vera’s own hand. A combination of these things, all pointing to an unwavering devotion to Vera on the part of Robert, initially attempts to fool the audience into viewing Robert as a positive and even fatherly figure to Vera. In the same way, Benigno is portrayed as a concerned caretaker that only has the best interest of his unconscious charge, Alicia, in mind. He, like his counterpart Robert, is shown to be extremely concerned for the woman that interests him by way of the careful and calculated routines of care and hygiene that he practices on her. Both Robert and Benigno show something of a casual detachment towards their respective subjects, and it is through this detachment that the cracks begin to emerge.
As Laura Mulvey states in Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema: “The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly” (203). There is perhaps not a better way to describe the ways in which Benigno and Robert look upon their respective women. For Benigno, Alicia is viewed as both as a person of whom he holds a romantic interest in, but also one that harbors for him a purely physical passion. By being unable to separate his raw animalistic desires and his convoluted romantic feelings, Benigno ultimately comes to believe that his feelings towards Alicia are mutual. This projection by Benigno becomes so strong that he will not believe what anyone else has to say if it goes against what he believes to be true, and ultimately this path leads Benigno to commit his crime.
For Robert in The Skin I Live In though, the projection of the male fantasy onto the female figure takes a drastically new and twisted meaning. Though Robert’s exact intentions when he begins his transformation of Vicente are unclear, the ultimate effect of these actions is not. Robert, by transforming Vicente into Vera, completes a drastic transformation of his subject that is uncaring as to the gender of said subject. Ultimately, Robert begins to project his fantasies onto the fabricated female body that he has created, as he begins to mold Vicente into Vera, and then Vera towards the appearance of his own late wife. Marilia notes this as she watches the transformation of Vicente, but it is never made explicitly clear to the audience whether or not the look of Vera is a conscious decision by Robert or not. Like Benigno, Robert’s animalistic desires are brought forth and pushed towards his respective object of desire, but in this case there is no one to check Robert for his crimes. Instead, he is free to project his fantasies onto his fabricated female figure on a level that is above what any average man could achieve. Whereas Benigno can only imagine a mutual relationship between him and Alicia, Robert wields the power to alter the very physical form of his object. In this way, Robert’s projections are only half imagined, as he creates for himself a world where he and Vera are living together in a happy relationship. The other half of his projections are real, as he is able and willing to make real physical changes to his subject so that it fulfills his desires. Vicente is the object of Robert’s desire, and Robert does not care if he destroys his subject’s identity in order to fulfill his wants.
None of this is to say that Vicente is a good person. One of his defining actions is his rape of Robert’s daughter Norma. Almodóvar uses this action to demonstrate multiple things, including a further silencing of his female characters. Though Norma is able to ultimately stop her rape, she suffers irreversible psychological damage as a result and later commits suicide. It may at first appear that Almodóvar is condemning Norma because of her rape, but the events that occur because of this action are not condemning to Norma at all and in fact very similar to the actions that occur after the known rape in Talk To Her.
Alicia ultimately awakes from her coma as a result of the birth of the child fathered by Benigno during his rape of her. This, for many reasons, seems to be saying that Benigno is responsible for the waking of Alicia, and he should be given credit for this turn of events. But interpreting the film this way is missing the large scope of what is happening in Talk To Her. It is true that Alicia is impregnated and awakened by her rape, but she is ultimately the one that brings about the incarceration of her violator. Though the film only references one instance where Benigno rapes Alicia, it is possible that there were many other instances, and overall Benigno’s behavior towards Alicia both before and after she became comatose is problematic. There is no indication that Benigno would ever stop his behavior towards Alicia because of anything short of him being forcibly stopped, such as being imprisoned, but Alicia is able to take matters into her own hands and bring to an end her oppression and silencing.
Alicia reveals her peril by way of her body, and she is ultimately awakened for the same reason. While this is only possible because of Benigno’s actions, Alicia would not be in peril where it not for Benigno and in effect she is turning the actions of her attacker against him. This does not justify Benigno or condemn Alicia in any way, as none of this would have happened were it not for Benigno. And while Alicia would have most likely been in a coma no matter what actions Benigno took towards her, it would be wrong to justify Benigno’s actions because of one of their unintended results. What happens as a result of Benigno’s actions should not be credited to Benigno; instead, the credit should be given to Alicia, as it are the actions taken by her body that save her from her violator and awaken her from her coma. The actions of Alicia have even been compared to The Bride in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003) by Marsh Kinder in Reinventing the Motherland: Almodóvar’s Brain-Dead Trilogy (21). The Bride’s actions are notably more violent than those taken by Alicia, but they ultimately have the same ending effect on her attacker.
The comparison between The Bride and Alicia is interesting, as it provides a stark contrast between the actions taken by women against their attackers. Both of these respective women ultimately free themselves, but in the case of The Bride, the awakening from her coma is seen as something that is more incidental than anything else. It is never implied that The Bride wakes herself up, ad instead this awakening is a mere coincidence that allows The Bride to gain revenge on those who have violated her. The Bride takes her revenge awake and alive, and because of this, as well as the genre difference between the two films, her actions significantly more bloody than those taken by Alicia. Alicia uses the actions of her violator against him, and she does so by way of her body processes. The Bride takes active, violent actions, even leaving her bed in order to complete her revenge. And though both of the respective violators end up dead as a result of the actions taken in retaliation against them, Alicia does not even have to lift a finger in order to free herself. This is not a discounting of the actions of The Bride in any way, but the contrast in actions taken and the similar consequences of these actions gives the audience a new way of looking at how Alicia is able to free herself from her male oppressor.
In a more direct way, Vicente turns his violators’ actions on their head as Vera. As Vera, Vicente is able to mislead Robert into believing that he is accepting of himself as a she. The actions that Vera takes to ultimately undo Robert and Marilia are much more direct and violent than those taken by Alicia, but they are just as effective. Vera even goes so far to prevent the undoing of Robert by other means as she protects him from an inquiry brought on by a suspicious colleague. This action has the effect of both reinforcing Robert’s faith in her and also preserving Robert for his own, personal, revenge. After Vicente’s revenge is complete, Almodóvar does not make it clear whether or not he will be able to fully reenter his old life prior to his transgression and following punishment. This has the effect of both giving the film a somewhat ambiguous ending, but also, so some effect, escaping on delivering a final judgment against Vicente for the crimes committed by him earlier in the film. Though it can be argued that the crimes committed against Vicente are punishment enough for his crimes, one cannot forget that Vicente’s rape of Norma led to her untimely death in the end. Vicente gets out of the film physically alive, albeit with drastic physical altercations and crimes committed against him.
Lydia remains the only silenced character between Talk to Her and The Skin I Live In that is seemingly not granted the agency necessary to free herself from her respective situation. But as argued by Adriana Novoa in Whose Talk Is It? Almodóvar and the Fairy Tale in Talk to Her, Lydia’s goring by the bull “…can be read as a suicidal move” (226). This reading of the film argues that Lydia’s choosing to end her life, or her attempt to do so, would be her own way of attempting to free herself from her silenced position. The audience knows from the flashbacks to the conversations between Marco and Lydia that Lydia felt as though she was not speaking at all in their relationship. By allowing herself to be gored, Lydia, like Vera in The Skin I Live In, is resorting to self-harm in an attempt to free herself from the rule of the male figures in her life. Even if this is a less than desirable option, it should still be noted because it is agency on the part of a female character, and the actions taken by Lydia are very effective as well. Lydia may enter a coma as a result of her actions, but she is now free form Marco and El Niño de Valencia and the movie never hints that she is violated in any way as Alicia is. And though while in a coma she is subject to the projections of the male figure that are in love with her, in reality they are helpless to do anything to remedy the situation in a way that would favor them. Ultimately, Lydia dies in a coma, freeing herself from any and all oppression, and completing her original goal.
Overall, Almodóvar’s treatment of women is fairly consistent across Talk to Her and The Skin I Live In. The most common theme between the two is how Almodóvar silences his female characters, but in every instance her is sure to give them a recompense of some sort. Both films are also unique in their overall portrayal of the women within them. While central female characters in Talk to Her are literally verbally silent for most of the film, the method taken in The Skin I Live In is a very different and unique route. The most striking feature of The Skin I Live In is the lack of female characters. Marilia is a female presence, but in the end she always bends to Robert’s will and never takes much initiative for herself. Vera is the other female presence in the film, but she is not truly female so it is unfair to judge her as such or credit Almodóvar for placing another female in the film. This presence is a misdirecting one that spurs the audience into reconsidering their initial perceptions of the gendered presences in the film. And though both films present their females as victims in one way or another, Almodóvar does not allow these characters to be without any resources to rescue themselves from their respective perilous situations.
In short, Almodóvar does not offer any easy answers in relation to the problems suffered by any of his characters in these two films. Lydia does not make it out of Talk to Her alive and Vicente is offered little to no closure in relation to the crimes committed against him, but he has still freed himself from his oppression. Most of Alicia’s problems are solved by the actions taken by her body in relation to the transgressions committed by Benigno, but in the end the fact that she has been stalked and raped cannot be discounted or forgotten. But Almodóvar is not looking to give his audience a perfect world to watch. Instead, and despite the fact that The Skin I Live In is almost science fiction and Talk to Her is overly fantastic, Almodóvar presents honest portrayals of actions and their consequences. Benigno pays for his crimes, as does Robert and Marilia, and all of this happens as a result of the actions taken by the characters that have been silenced by the males in the film. Almodóvar may silence his characters, but he does so in order to demonstrate the respective wills of these characters and empower them in new and different ways.
The Skin I Live In. Dir. Pedro Almodóvar. Perf. Antonio Banderas and Elena Anaya. Warners España, 2011. DVD.
Talk to Her. Dir. Pedro Almodóvar. Perf. Javier Cámara and Darío Grandinetti. Warner Sogefilms/Sony Pictures Classics, 2002. DVD.
Di Ceglie, Domenico. “Identity And Inability To Mourn In The Skin I Live In.” International Journal Of Psychoanalysis 93.5 (2012): 1308-1313. Film & Television Literature Index. Web. 7 Dec. 2016.
Kinder, Marsha. “Reinventing the Motherland: Almodóvar’s Brain-Dead Trilogy.” Film Quarterly 58.2 (2004): 9–25. Film & Television Literature Index. Web. 19 Dec. 2016.
Lemma, Alessandra. “A Perfectly Modern Frankenstein: Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In” International Journal Of Psychoanalysis 93.5 (2012): 1291-1300. Film & Television Literature Index. Web. 7 Dec. 2016.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16.3 (1975): 6-18. Film & Television Literature Index. Web. 19 Dec. 2016.
Novoa, Adriana. “Whose Talk Is It? Almodóvar and the Fairy Tale in Talk to Her.” Marvels & Tales 19.2 (2005): 224-248. JSTOR Web. 19 Dec. 2016
Kill Bill: Volume 1. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Perf. Uma Thurman and Lucy Liu. Miramax Films, 2003. DVD.
Walters, Ben. “Gut Crazy.” Film Quarterly 65.1 (2011): 6–7. JSTOR Web. 19 Dec. 2016