Why Skin is A-peeling: Transgenesis in Cinema

There are three realms of understanding: there are the things we know that we know; there is stuff we know that we don’t know; and then there’s stuff that we don’t even know that we don’t know. In my sophomore year English class, my high-heeled, leather-clad, too groupie to be a teacher teacher asked us to write a paper on what it means to be human. I was fifteen years old at the time, way too uncultured and privileged to even begin to understand the complexities of human nature in this second realm of understanding. By reading Pride and Prejudice, Macbeth, and A Tale of Two Cities, I was able to write a paper well enough to get an A in the class, but I certainly did not learn what it means to be human, nor could I recognize a question that, at the time, was in the third realm: how could we lose our humanity?

Pedro Almodovar’s film The Skin I Live In begins with an extreme long-shot of Toledo, Spain in 2012. All the present-day action takes place in one house, El Cigarral, but there is never again a large-scale establishing shot throughout the movie. From Toledo to El Cigarral, the setting gets smaller and smaller, zeroing in on a bodysuit-clad woman named Vera calmly doing yoga in a locked bedroom. However, this movie is far from peaceful.

The Skin I Live In is a horrifying tale of revenge: Vera was once Vicente, a restless young man who felt trapped in his life. While high on a myriad of pills, he rapes a naive teenage girl at a wedding party, and the trauma of her slow recovery, in combination with her existing troubles, causes her to jump out a window like her mother did years ago. The widowed Robert, now childless too, kidnaps Vicente and forces a sex change upon him, replacing every inch of his skin with mutated skin containing genetic information from a pig’s cell.

This is no nasty, ill-informed Human Centipede 2 style doctor: Robert is a plastic surgeon with a place in the scientific community, though his reputation is threatened when his colleagues learn of his skin experiment: by transferring genetic information from a pig’s cell to a human’s, Robert has crossed a line into transgenesis, an “unethical” area. At a cocktail party following Robert’s skin presentation, his friend makes it very clear that the project, the “transgenic therapy of humans”, is “totally forbidden” as the “bioethics are clear” about revival through mutation, the separation between animal and human.

This movie calls into question the line between our humanity and our animalistic qualities. Robert’s brother Zeca is only shown in this film as an animal, both in his looks and in his behavior. He’s dressed in a tiger costume and licks his prey before he rapes it. Though we see his naked human form later in his scene, his untamed lust is beyond human compassion and even desire. Vicente is animalized as well, but at the hands of Robert, rather than by his own wants and will. Once kidnapped, Vicente is chained to a wall and given a bucket of water, one day at a time. We see him reduced to his knees as he doggedly savors this treat, devouring a bowl of rice with his fingers when given the opportunity to eat. Vicente’s survival needs triumph his humanity under these conditions, but does putting Vicente through this maltreatment make Robert an animal?

Sadly, The Skin I Live In is not the only film in which a surgeon kidnaps and alters his patients against their will. A demented German surgeon, famous for separating Siamese twins, tranquilizes and kidnaps people in order to achieve his dream of a human centipede: people sewn from mouth to anus, connected and fed by each other’s gastric systems.

Because it’s labeled as a slasher/thriller movie, much of The Human Centipede contains “shock value” effects. The blood, the surgery visuals, the defecation scene — all of it meant to repulse audience members who enjoy horror movies. The Human Centipede has a lot of the conventions that any other horror movie would: direct foreshadowing of imminent doom, young, attractive women lost in the forest, a rainy night; this movie is a cult classic for horror fans.

Before he operates on the kidnapped “patients”, Dr. Heiter explains the scientific details of the surgery and his first attempt to create a Siamese triplet. He says, “I transformed my three rottweilers into a beautiful three-hound construction,” praising this regenesis and excited to be experimenting on human flesh. As The Human Centipede movie trailer says, “Your flesh is his fantasy”.

While there may not be much depth into this movie, the idea of regenesis, in the context of surgery, adds an interesting dimension of analysis when viewing Pedro Almodovar’s film The Skin I Live In, which also features a transforming surgery. We are first introduced to Dr. Robert’s patient, Vera, as if she’s the guinea pig of this transgenic skin experiment, when in fact she’s the victim of a forced sex change.

There are many differences between The Human Centipede and The Skin I Live In: for one thing, a sex change, while it does strip and alter sexual attributes, does not strip away humanity altogether. Dr. Heiter’s, uh, experiment is more demeaning, and demented. In addition to erasing the patients’ individualities by ripping up and throwing away their ID cards that he lifted from their unconscious bodies, he dehumanizes them by treating them like a dog once the operation is complete. He asks the centipede to carry his newspaper by the mouth, eat from a bowl, and sleep in a cage. Though Vera, too, is caged in her room, she is at least kept well-fed and entertained in her room at the service of a dumbwaiter in The Skin I Live In.

The making of and treatment towards the human centipede is simply inhumane: Jenny, Lindsay, and Katsuro are ripped open and sewn together, and the physical pain is intentional. In deciding that Lindsay will be the “middle piece”, that is, the person eating and feeding feces, Dr. Heiter gleefully tells her that the healing process will be twice as painful. When the centipede is constructed, he tells each of them about their pain and shows no remorse in delivering this obvious news. When their fate is literally drawn on a projector screen in front of them, Dr. Heiter’s patients are screaming and crying just in anticipation of this cruel act.

Dr. Robert in The Skin I Live In, however, is more psychological in his plan for pain and revenge against Vicente. He takes almost four years to complete the sex change, slowly turning Vicente into Vera. He changes every inch of her skin: starting with castration and ending with the layering of his new skin product to create a smooth surface. After the first surgery, adding a vagina, Robert brings Vicente dildos of varying length to help stretch out the tissues and prevent them from sticking together. Though Vicente is completely transformed, he’s never alien. But both of these movies question human degradation and what makes us animalistic.

Though Vera is still human, she isn’t totally natural. She didn’t request a sex change, for she isn’t born female nor does she feel womanly. Does this unwanted label, the idea of living as a woman when being a man, make her something other? In a music review of Arca’s album Mutant, writer SCVSCV compares Arca’s use of sound mixing to that of body mutilation. The songs are formed in such a way that manifest the out-of-body transformation of “an organ made foreign when transplanted into another breathing body.” Arca’s music is incredibly alternative and edgy, throwing sounds of convulsed piano chords, electronic beats, and abstract sirens between my ears as waves of disorientation pulse over my brain, for there’s little pattern in the ripples of chaotic reverberations. SCVSCV writes with color and zest, saying “Album opener “Alive” begins as a triumphant call for empathy stitched inside devastated sound-terrain; the synths are bruised with phased tonality, while harmonies crawl out of hidden spaces.” SCVSCV personifies Arca’s music to engage our empathy in the review. But Arca finds unconventional places to insert alternative sounds, beats, and rhythms, just as Robert rearranges Vicente’s body.

The human centipede is not human at all, though it is made of humans. It’s a mutation of people, a regenesis born of sick, sick curiosity and exploitation. Dr. Heiter is volcanic and erratic, exploding at those who spill their glasses of drugged water and showing visible emotion when his centipede isn’t cooperating (for example, when the centipede hides from him, he looks genuinely betrayed). This movie isn’t about the people in the centipede losing their humanity: it’s centered on mutation by a human already lost. In trying to turn these people into an animal, Dr. Heiter himself becomes one. This inhumane surgeon is directly destroying a distinct human quality in his victims, yet they are ones who remain human. We are painfully aware of the centipede’s humanity due to their suffering, which lasts through the final seconds of the movie: Katsuro slits his throat, bleeding to death; Jenny dies of infection and malnutrition; Lindsay is sobbing, left to die, alone, between these two people.

Unlike the human centipede, Vera is physically in a human form. But is Robert’s humanity sacrificed in performing a non consensual sex change? Just as Dr. Heiter soils human features of his victims, Robert too devastates Vicente’s human qualities, distorting his body past recognition. The difference, however, lies in the two surgeons’ intentions: Dr. Heiter aims to animalize his patients, while Robert means to change Vicente’s humanity.

Not dissimilar to Dr. Heiter’s operation, Robert is very clean: he and his colleague wear sterile gloves and gowns to castrate Vicente. But we never see Vicente’s healing vagina, whereas the centipede’s wounds are visibly shown bleeding/with dry blood (though that effect might be more for the genre rather than anything else). We must then imagine Vicente’s recovery, for we only see the outcome. Dr. Heiter operates from a place of sick desire and pure disgust, but Robert’s operation stems from revenge, a very human emotion; but to what extent is his punishment towards Vicente humane?

Arie Kruglanski and Mark Dechesne’s article “Psychology of Terrorism” defines the making of a terrorist in Encyclopedia of Social Psychology. They question the phenomenon of terrorism, how it is caused and discovered; so what does psychology, the scientific study of the human brain, reveal about the potential for becoming a terrorist?

The article clearly spells out terrorism (as defined by the US Department of State): “…[the] act needs to be planned (“premeditated”), to be politically motivated, to involve violence, to be carried out in peacetime, to be directed against civilians (i.e., “noncombatants”), and to involve no government directly,” but how did people even get into this mindset? Can we take them out of it? According to Kruglanski and Dechesne there are apparently two ways in which to view and combat terrorism: as a syndrome or as a tool.

Addressing terrorism as a mental illness likens it to disorders; people could say “I’m a terrorist, and that’s just who I am” just as people are diagnosed with depression, OCD, and schizophrenia. Terrorism as a tool however, doesn’t necessitate a biological dysfunction or a psychological abnormality. Basic theories on goals and motivations can then help us get into the mind of a terrorist if violence is simply a means to an end. Terrorism can then be considered a feasible option, especially if raised in a culture that encourages or even necessitates violence.

I want to be clear that The Skin I Live In does NOT depict Robert as a terrorist; this is by no means an especially violent movie in which we see Robert brutalize Vera, for this movie features bloodless mutilation. But Vera is Robert’s creation, the “monster” to his Frankenstein. Why shouldn’t he exert control upon her? She’s quite literally tailored to suit him, saying “I’m made to measure for you.” He never takes advantage of her (though Robert does penetrate her flesh with a scalpel…), but he certainly has the opportunities to do so: before he shoots Zeca, Robert points the gun at Vera. Before they go to sleep, Vera asks if they can “save [having sex] for tomorrow”, to which he pulls away and says “As you wish”, demonstrating cooperation that isn’t present when Zeca rapes Vera or Vicente rapes Norma.

A consensual relationship, or even just sex, I don’t believe was ever part of Robert’s agenda for revenge. He wants Vera to suffer like Norma, so he keeps his humanity, defined by his respect for and boundaries from Vera, but with his eyes locked on his plan. However, once that desire has been fulfilled and Vera is raped by Zeca, there’s a very noticeable shift in Robert’s attitude towards her.

He walks into Vera’s room, her body limp beneath Zeca’s heaving breath. Robert points his gun at her, she barely shakes her head. In this instant, his face starts shaking as if in shock, and he can’t bring himself to shoot her. He shifts his aim and shoots Zeca twice without a trace of regret on his face. He instantly embraces Vera, holding her as if he’s been craving her human touch for a long time.

Music reviewer SCVSCV writes that: “Arca states that traumatic disappearance can be absorbed trauma, as one ‘uses softness as a weapon when the mind attacks itself.’” Once Vera is raped like Norma, Robert can take in the present, as his “eye for an eye” goal has been fulfilled. He is promptly overcome with protective affection for Vera, but he has led himself into this rabbit hole of distorted tenderness.

Perhaps Robert falls for her looks (Vera is given the face of Robert’s dead wife); perhaps he can’t help the opportunity to protect Vera and feel useful, feelings he was denied when Norma was recovering from rape trauma; but it is Vera’s humanity that keeps him under her finger, for love and affection are two of the most natural emotions of the human experience.


Works Cited

Kruglanski, A. W. and Dechesne, M. “Psychology of Terrorism”. R. Baumeister & K. Vohs, Encyclopedia of social psychology. Thousand Oaks, CA Sage Publications, 2007. Retrieved from <https://ezproxy.library.nyu.edu/login?url=http://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/sagesocpsyc/terrorism_psychology_of/0>.

SCVSCV. Review of Mutant by Arca. Mute, 2015. Accessed on 12/13/2016. Retrieved from <http://www.tinymixtapes.com/music-review/arca-mutant>.

The Human Centipede (First Sequence). Dir. Tom Six. IFC Films, 2010. Film.
La Piel Que Habito (The Skin I Live In). Dir. Pedro Almodovar. Sony Pictures Classic, 2011. Film.


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