Sometime between 1780 and 1782, the Italian artist Clemente Susini created the first Anatomical Venus: A life-sized, nude, wax woman, with human hair brushed down over her shoulders, a pearl necklace clasped around her neck, and her lips permanently parted. Students of anatomy could unhook the hinge along her torso and swing the skin-colored door out to reveal seven articulated layers of plasticine organs. Here was an alternative to dissecting corpses. Instead of decaying flesh, a beautiful facsimile of a woman with pieces you could remove, threaded muscle around bone, and a stone-sized fetus tucked into the bottom layer.
This first Anatomical Venus beget others, all crafted to look as if they were sleeping, nowhere near the painful edge of death. The artists wanted to distance these models from the visceral reality of dissection. Ever so slightly, the Venus’s knees were bent, their backs arched. Allusions toward the erotic. Pert breasts were built to be folded out, revealing muscle and bone. Hairs were coiled around fingers and tied back with yellow ribbon. One Venus’s lips curled up into a small smile. Another’s gaze cast downward, an approximation of modesty. Still another wore a tiara. The exteriors of these mannequins belied the gruesome-esque “lessons” built beneath their perfect, porcelain-toned wax skin.
As an anatomical illustrator from that time, Arnaud-Éloi Gautier D’Agoty, put it: “For men to be instructed, they must be seduced by aesthetics, but how can anyone render the image of death agreeable?”
In a mansion’s laboratory somewhere in Toledo, Spain, a headless, female mannequin is laid out on an operating table, her legs and arms splayed like a starfish. A plastic surgeon, Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), builds a layer of skin along lines etched into the hard plastic torso. Then: the mannequin fades out and a woman’s body fades in. Ledgard has transferred the lab-grown skin onto Vera (Elena Anaya). The new skin is a hybrid, resistant to burns, insect bites, and most pain.
Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In is the inverse of surgical horror. Rather than undo, Ledgard’s scalpel claims to fix. He’s flayed Vera and dressed her in new and improved skin. But it’s not clear, at first, what he’s fixing in her. He keeps her locked in a room on the second floor of his mansion, where she spends her free time wearing a flesh-hued bodysuit, practicing yoga, reading, and painting the walls. Security cameras mounted in every corner project her movements onto a screen in Ledgard’s bedroom, and a smaller screen in the kitchen, so Ledgard’s housekeeper, Marilia (Marisa Paredes), can also keep watch.
In stages, we find out just how much is wrong here: Vera has been crafted into the image of Ledgard’s wife, who committed suicide after a disfiguring car accident. The face we see is not the face that body began with. Ledgard has internal wounds he’s trying to right by crafting Vera’s skin into a perfect, indestructible carapace; he’s attempting to heal himself by redoing appropriating someone else’s body.
Years earlier, before Vera became Vera, she was Vicente (Jan Cornet), a slender, pale boy with a job at his mother’s dress shop. Ledgard finds his daughter, Norma (Blanca Suárez), unconscious on a lawn outside of a party and falsely assumes a rape occurred. After she commits suicide in a mental facility, Ledgard funnels the rage at his loss into rage at Vicente. He kidnaps Vicente, choosing punishment via sex reassignment surgery. This isn’t enough, however. There’s work to be done on the face, on the body. Through a series of surgeries, Vicente is slowly sculpted into Vera. Ledgard forces Vicente/Vera to wear the flesh-toned bodysuit, to help sculpt the body, and a white, plastic mask, to hide the face while it goes through its transformation. After one of these surgeries, Vicente asks: “Am I finished?” By which he means: “Are you finished?” Has Ledgard finally completed the rounds of transformations and nips and tucks he’s envisioned for this body he’s requisitioned for his own purposes?
The Skin I Live In is an austere film. Its horror is in the constraints and limits of a body, the claustrophobia of having one’s face become one’s definition. Vicente/Vera has been reduced to the sum of their parts. Beyond the imprisonment and careful censoring of the materials they’re allowed, Ledgard does no work toward altering their interior. For Ledgard, the knowledge of someone’s self begins and ends with their exterior: their skin is their most revealing organ, and once that has been changed, their identity has changed along with it.
Vicente spends most of the film insisting: I am not this woman. Ledgard doesn’t listen, perhaps assuming that the longer Vicente inhabits the body of Vera, the more Vera he will become. Which is why Ledgard doesn’t question Vera when she begins to perform her new female identity. She goes shopping with Marilia, applies makeup, does everything she can to fill the roll Ledgard expects her to fill. It’s this trick, the embodiment of her mask, that allows Vera/Vicente to escape and return to the home Ledgard stole them from years earlier.
What began as vengeance became a way for Ledgard to realize his physical fixation. But he made a mistake: he forgot to consider what the mask he constructed might be hiding.
At the end of the 19th century, a young woman’s body was pulled from the Seine and brought to a morgue in the center of the city, where other unknown bodies of the deceased were displayed, in the hopes that someone would identify them. No one came to name the woman, but a medical assistant fixated on the remnants of her smile. He took a plaster cast of her face.
This is the (perhaps apocryphal) story of “L’Inconnue de la Seine.” The Unknown Woman of the Seine. Paris’s own Ophelia.
L’Inconnue’s death mask was copied and then copied again. Shops sold it along the Left Bank. Having L’Inconnue’s mask on one’s wall became common in European homes. Albert Camus compared her smile to a “drowned Mona Lisa.” The poet Jules Supervielle wrote a short story from her perspective. In 1933, Louis-Ferdinand Céline submitted a photo of the mask to his editor, in lieu of an author’s photo. Rilke, Louis Aragon, and Vladimir Nabakov all included references to her in their works. This is by no means an exhaustive list.
Then, in the late 1950s, a man designing the first CPR mannequin chose L’Inconnue for the mannequin’s face. He figured men wouldn’t want to learn CPR on a male mannequin; a woman’s face would be the best way to teach resuscitation; and this woman’s face, in particular, was beautiful, serene, and available. They named her “Resusci Anne” (“CPR Annie”) and, as this article puts it, she became the “most beloved life-size doll.”
Or: L’Inconnue became the most kissed face of all time.
Almodóvar took many cues for The Skin I Live In from George Franju’s 1960 French horror film, Eyes Without a Face. The “mad scientist” in Franju’s film, however, does not surgically change one face into another; instead, Franju’s Dr. Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) is intent on restoring his daughter’s face, after Christiane (Edith Scob) had her “angelic” features burnt and disfigured in a terrible car accident.
It’s not clear how much Christiane wants her face back. She scoffs at the idea of becoming used to the white mask her father makes her wear before the surgery (a mask very similar to the one Ledgard has Vicente/Vera wear). She accuses him of feeling guilty about the accident. She wishes she were blind or dead. Her face frightens her. They’ve removed the mirrors but she can still see herself in the glass windows, in the reflection on a knife or varnished wood. But, as she tells her father’s assistant, Louise (Alida Valli): “My mask frightens me more.”
Dr. Génessier conflates his daughter’s face and her identity. Without one, she cannot have the other. Without her face, she’s no one. She’s barely human. There’s no way she could function in society as is. When the police station calls Génessier down to identify a woman they pulled from the Seine, he positively ID’s her as Christiane and holds a public funeral. He says this is so they can continue their work in private, so others will stop looking for Christiane, but there’s probably a part of him that does this because he believes it’s correct: Christiane exists somewhere between life and death.
Génessier’s plan is to take one young woman’s facial skin and graft it onto Christiane. The donor’s features don’t get transferred, they’re merely the vehicle for him to sculpt around Christiane’s distinctive features. This way, Christiane will become Christiane again; until then, she’s a ghost in a mask, a suggestion of what she once was.
The only time we see Christiane’s disfigured face full-on, it’s from the perspective of the young woman that’s been kidnapped for the purposes of the face transplant. Edna (Juliette Mayniel) is unconscious and tied down in the laboratory when Christiane sneaks in, at first circling her like a caged animal, and then lightly pushing the pads of her fingers into Edna’s face. Testing her skin. This wakes Edna, whose eyes fly open to see Christiane’s blurred face—dark, pocked, disgusting—as Christiane backs away. We see the suggestion of Christiane’s scars through the eyes of the woman whose face will soon become similarly unseeable.
At first, the transplant seems to have worked. Génessier and Louise applaud Christiane’s return to her beautiful, angelic features. But Christiane feels as if something’s off: “When I look in a mirror, I feel I’m looking at someone who looks like me, but seems to come from the Beyond.” And then, her body begins to reject the new skin. Her cheeks sag and separate. The mask goes back on.
Christiane is told that she should want to look like her old self. She should want to be beautiful again and participate in the world as a beautiful young thing would. But this isn’t what she wants, not after the trauma of the car accident, compounded by the trauma of her face and the way she’s been received. Her father wants her to regain her socially acceptable face and, with it, her socially acceptable identity.
Christiane rejects both. She lets the second victim go, refusing the flimsy promise of her former life. Instead, she chooses to continue as the “living dead.” In the movie’s final minutes, she cuts the newest victim loose and stabs Louise in the neck. When Christiane leaves her father’s house, it’s with the mask pulled over her face and a bird perched on her wrist. She walks into the woods. Returning, as much as she can, to a natural state. It’s not the return to normal they’d planned, but it is the one she chose.
In a recent interview with Harper’s Bazaar, plastic surgeon Dr. Simon Ourian discussed the uptick in plastic surgery among young women, many of whom were inspired to modify their bodies by one of Ourian’s patients, Kylie Jenner. The interview is filled with quotes that feel dystopic: “You are born with your face but you don’t have to die with that face,” or, “They bring pictures of themselves that they’ve done on Facetune.” As Ourian points out, women wanting to change their appearance is nothing new: “What is different is that now we can do something about it.”
The Kardashian/Jenner family are at the forefront of the culture and cult of celebrity bodies. Publications use them as arbiters of our values, watching any shifts in their bodies for signs of aging, addiction, plastic surgery, pregnancy, or weight fluctuation. They’re criticized for gaining weight or for losing it too quickly; belly bumps immediately become babies. Every change in their appearance is picked over—was it from a procedure, was it natural, does it make them more or less beautiful.
In a recent essay on the Kardashians and their complicated relationship to plastic surgery, Zan Romanoff writes: “Ultimately, how we talk about plastic surgery is just a subset of how we talk about women who dare to live any part of their lives in public. How dare a woman allow herself to be anything less than beautiful?” In that same piece, Romanoff points out one process, micro-needling, and how it uses micro-injuries to jumpstart the body’s repair process: “It is surreal to see a doctor advocating injuries—no matter how micro—as a path to health.” Such as the vampire facial Kim has advocated for, a procedure where her face is continuously stabbed by needles filled with her own blood.
Plastic surgery, although common, is not ubiquitous. But the urge to change our appearance, to alter some facet of ourselves to fit into some version of the shifting, modern ideal of beauty, is. There is a correct amount of curve, a correct width of waist, a correct prominence of facial features. It’s shifting but persistent: We can always become more beautiful, more correct, more of everything they want us to be, and we’re taught by the ways we monitor the bodies of celebrities like the Kardashians and Jenners just how we should be monitoring our own bodies.
There are stories told about these bodies, assumptions of narrative associated with their fluctuations. More than that: assumptions that we should be allowed access to these stories, since they’ve been presented to us to consume.
Which means, more than anything: a continued conflation of a body with its identity.
Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013) opens as the Female (Scarlett Johansson) rehearses: her diction, her choice of clothes, the way she walks through a crowded mall. Her beauty is uncanny and she walks with the deliberate, careful step of someone not used to their own body. From the driver’s seat of a white van, she pulls up alongside a solitary man, offers to give him a ride, and then invites him to her place, where she walks forward, shedding clothes, while he silently sinks into an enigmatic, black liquid. It’s a pattern she repeats: driving around in her van, giving a ride to a solitary man, and then ending back at her place, where the man is subsumed. The Female is not human; she’s an alien, using a version of the “ideal female body” to lure men into her trap.
Under the Skin is seemingly the inverse of The Skin I Live In and Eyes Without a Face. The Female doesn’t have to fight for a new face or the right to her old identity. She’s chosen her mask. She’s a monster in human form and spends much of the film trying to better perform her role as a Human Woman, despite the disparity between her skin and the alien form that skin is hiding.
The longer she’s in the body, however, the more flimsy the line between performing and experiencing becomes. An encounter with a Deformed Man (Adam Pearson), whose face is covered in noncancerous tumors, sends her pattern careening. He was so fragile around her, so sure she’d treat him like a monster, not knowing that from her perspective, he was far more human than she was. She lets him go without killing him, then abandons her van in the Scottish Highlands.
At a restaurant, she tries a slice of cake but can’t keep it down. A man (Michael Moreland) she meets at a bus stop brings her home, cooks for her, sits with her while they watch television. It almost seems comfortable, normal. But when she tries to sleep with the man, far away from the trap of her apartment, she cuts the encounter short and grabs a lamp to inspect her genitals. Her biology prevents her from crossing the boundary between performing and being, but there are only pieces of this impulse that she understands.
While sleeping in an empty cabin in the woods, the Female wakes up to find a logger (Dave Acton) on top of her, pulling at her clothes. She runs away but the forest looks the same from every direction and she finds herself in the logger’s truck as he approaches. She struggles as he grabs at her. He accidentally pulls off a piece of her skin. Her true coal-black, alien body glistens beneath. In shock, she begins to peel off her human costume like a wetsuit. When the logger returns and douses her in gasoline, then lights her on fire, she doesn’t have the time to stop him. She runs, a pillar of flame, until she can’t run any longer. The alien collapses into a drift of snow. The flame dwindles.
The Female chose her body because of the response it would elicit: Men would become easy victims, would open up, would not question their luck when she invited them back to her place. She knew the stories they would assume based on the body she presented. But this anticipated response also brings the logger to that small, empty cabin that night, looking for her.
The Female—the alien—is not the monster here.
Vera and Christiane may have escaped, but their escapes were relative. Vera will never be Vicente again. Christiane will never get her face back. Their true escape is from the men who sought to define them, an escape the Female of Under the Skin would have never found. She tried to weaponize men’s desire, only to find that same weapon pointed back at her. Which all boils down to the stories men use women’s bodies in order to tell. Stories about their own grief or guilt or desire.
There are movies where men grapple with facial disfigurement and a swimming sense of self, such as Teshigahara’s The Face of Another, Frankenheimer’s Seconds, or Amenábar’s Open Your Eyes. But in these films, men losing their appearance is not tantamount to loss of identity. Their resolution isn’t, “I no longer look like myself, so I am no longer myself,” but rather: “I don’t look like I used to. What does that mean for who I am now?” In the former, the timeline is cut short; in the latter, the timeline is merely diverted. The men’s masks become doorways to freedom in the same way Vera’s and Christiane’s imprison them.
The Skin I Live In, Eyes Without a Face, and Under the Skin are all classified as horror for a reason. They are great, complicated explorations into the relationship between the feminine exterior and the interior. The men make the mistake of forgetting that the exterior neither equates with nor negates the interior. They turn their subjects into two-dimensional vessels and speak about their bodies in the passive tense. These characters—Vera/Vicente, Christiane, the Female—feel their humanity bent beneath the desolation of their own image.
In Ways of Seeing, John Berger writes: “You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting ‘Vanity,’ thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for you own pleasure.”
Put another way: women aren’t the stories you think their bodies tell you.
Our bodies aren’t battlegrounds for your life lessons.