Building a Better Venus – Creating Beauty in Our Own Image

From a certain angle, “The Skin I Live In” makes a fascinating time at the movies out of some au courant medical ethics issues. More importantly to my own fascination is the fact that one more master has held up the fable of “Beauty and Beast” before the eyes of a modern audience.

Re-imagening our fable in his characteristic, tawdry, telanovela fashion, if I were called upon to name Almodóvar’s 2012 masterpiece, it would be, “The Recently Widowed Super-Surgeon’s Revenge,” but thematically “The Skin I Live In” lovingly teases apart our obsession with human perfection and makes art out of the slick sciences that promote it.

Sr. Almodóvar imagines his story at the junction of where art and science are increasingly intertwined and how that phenomenon, coupled with the film medium itself it would seem, along with the characters in the story, all combine to reflect our current disposition towards gender. His characters also conveniently embody all the archetypes of the popular fable we have been discussing in the past three posts.

The fable “Beauty and the Beast” fits perfectly under the surface of this “Skin,” with an opening identical to the other three–the Beast eavesdrops on Beauty through a glass. From there on out,“The Skin I Live In” takes the notion of scrutiny, surveillance and invasion of privacy to outlandish lengths through the character of Robert, the super surgeon who uses every means at his disposal, from giant screens to microscopes to get to the bottom what makes Beauty immortal.

At home he sits in front of a monitor zooming in and out on his captive with the leer of a peeping tom. At work Robert busies himself in the operating theater with research, examinations and invasive procedures upon his unwitting model.

The story threads together a panorama of relevant scenarios involving the sculpture of skin, the culture of clothes, assorted aspects of gender identity that relate to flesh, fashion, hide, masks, mirrors, armor and genitals.

As far back as we look there exist stories of gods and mortals who suffer from such dire cases of unrequited love that they simply must sculpt an idol to their ideal and make love to it. Almodóvar assumes we are still caught up in this preoccupation in modern times.

In this case Robert’s ideal is a dead ringer for his wife. He just happens to be fashioning her out of a young man who Robert believes ruined his daughter’s life. In the most perversely artificial way imaginable, Robert’s revenge conveniently manages to keep his love for his wife alive as well.

Addressing the artist/model relationship from the previous posts, there is always a predicament for the model in having to share the attention of the master with the creation he is working on, “The Skin I Live In,” imagines a case of the model being literally transformed into his creation.

Gender hybrids in art interests me in the light of the fact that Leonardo and Michelangelo, among others, painted women’s heads as well as their organs on men’s bodies to communicate the Renaissance concept of God-given human perfection. Though this all sounds chauvinistic now, we cannot possibly judge the mentality behind such choices with accuracy from the cultural reference point of our times. Was this really blatant disregard for woman, or some desire to imbue her with man’s strength? In other words, if only you could take the best of men and combine it with the best of women, that would be perfection. But who knows if that’s what was intended or something else?

If you are an artist absorbed in the act of creating, you work at all hours, often in the middle of the night, imagining, observing, probing, shaping, and caressing. The work becomes like a lover with whom you gladly elude sleep. Robert’s falling in love and sleeping with his Vera would be nothing scandalous if it weren’t for the revenge plot which makes a twisted horror flick out of our familiar fairy tale.

Most, if not all, of Pedro Almodóvar’s films portray situations of abduction and victimization. He’s well known for trafficking in images of rape, incest and assorted taboo which I’ve always assumed relates to the director’s feeling like a female trapped in a male body.

Within the first forty minutes of “Skin,” we’ve been shown kidnapping, drug abuse, burglary, a flaming car wreck, rape, bloody murder and several shameless breaches of medical code. Vera’s story should be interesting to anyone that feels trapped in a male dominant paradigm. Almodóvar’s story should be interesting to all genders when it addresses anxiety generated within our rigidly enforced hierarchy’s dominant sexual codes, and Beauty’s story should be interesting to all humanity in any way it might articulate our frustration when we are confronted with any of life’s polarizing dilemmas.

Indeed, one could read endless comparisons into the dynamic between the super-surgeon and his subject, not the least one being the corporation vs. consumer relationship and perhaps that is what makes the horror of Vera’s situation so disturbing to us.

Irregardless of connotations, intended or otherwise, the quality of the film making is superb. His country’s illustrious fine arts heritage seems to have taught the director well. Visually speaking, the flourish with which some of the technological imagery is presented recalls the most poetic science sequences in cinema from Lange to Kubrick.

“The Skin I Live In” expresses an undeniable dedication to the goddess of beauty. The filmmaker’s deeper allegiance is made obvious for us, for example, by posting enormous reproductions of “Venus D’Urbino” by Titian, along side “Venus in a Mirror” by Rubens, in the upstairs grand hallway. Like those masters before him, this one lavishes loving attention even on the most obscure element in the piece, investing painstaking care in the way it contributes to the refinement and dimensionality of the finished product.

A meticulously matched soundtrack selection, for instance “Shades of Marble,” by Anders Trentemøller evokes, with strident strings, the violent occlusions of geological upheaval. Almodóvar repurposes it ingeniously to express the fragility and vulnerability of flesh to intrusion by the scalpel, or the violent will of rapist against victim while, at the same time, paying homage to the classic Greek sculptors that labored to encode our modern obsession with flawless beauty.

Beginning with this past June’s post, I have been discussing Bertolluci’s charming coming of age flick, “Stealing Beauty” from 1996. Along side it, I have compared Jacques Rivette’s artist/model drama “La Belle Noisseuse.” From 1991, and proven that all are re-workings of the Jean Cocteau’s venerated classic, “La Belle et la Bete,” from 1947.

This final variation is the most exotic extreme. Whereas, in “La Belle Noiseusse”, the role of Beauty was stripped down and exposed, by the rigors of the master’s process, to possess a kernel of the beast inside. The genius of Almodóvar turns the screw a notch deeper, forcing man to be changed into woman against his will, for the purposes of sexual slavery, effectively transforming the Beast into Beauty to let him feel what it’s like to be preyed on.

In the opening credits of “Stealing Beauty,” Bertolucci casts his audience as the Beast to achieve essentially the same thing. All three are cinematic stunts designed to place the Beast in all of us, in Beauty’s point of view in order to foster compassion and respect for her. All three are acts of homage to idealized feminine and an appeal for her welfare which is too often taken advantage of in real world scenarios. All the more reason why she must be defended in our make believe ones.

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