UC Berkeley Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

Cosa de Mujeres: An Uncanny Reading of Almodóvar’s Hable con ella, Volver, and La piel que habito

Mackenzie Cooley

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Among his beautiful women, heinous men, ambiguous rapes, and giant vaginas, Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar’s work reeks of sexual imagery and cognitive dissonance.  Almodóvar’s style embraces discomfort-causing ambiguity which forces his viewers to think in nuances that they rarely would need to exhibit when viewing more conventional films. In this paper, I argue that his famous essay “The Uncanny” (1919) makes for a particularly appropriate lens though which to examine Almodóvar’s simultaneously sinister and heroic depiction of the female form.  By examining Volver (2006), Hable con ella (2002), and La piel que habito (2011) in a Freudian light, we see Almodóvar establish the uncanny nature of the female form, set up the binary between the worlds of men and women, and then blur the boundaries between men and women, dead and alive.

Déjà vu and Miraculous motherhood; the Uncanny Female Body

For Freud, it is not so much a woman’s voluptuous form that designates her sex, although that attribute is certainly part of her scripted persona.  Breasts and buttocks, hair and makeup, shoes and dresses are veils covering the true origin of her sex. What makes a woman truly a woman is her ability to bear children, to be corporeally fruitful.

One can hardly forget how miraculous motherhood actually is—and yet at the same time, is there anything more sinister, more peculiar, more beyond comprehension than the ability of a female body to reproduce, rear a duplicate from the depths of her entrails, animate untouched flesh and produce something human?  If a woman can create something out of nothing, life out of inanimate flesh, then it’s not so bizarre for children to imagine our beloved toys coming to life? As adults our desperate childhood belief, as Freud writes, that “dolls would be certain to come to life if [one] were to look at them in a particular way, with as concentrated a gaze as possible” is replaced with fear of the inanimate suddenly coming to life.[1]  Following Freud’s thought, we remember that in their early games children do not sharply distinguish between living and dead.

What, then, can be more horrifying than motherhood?  An unseen place within the woman’s body produces flesh that comes into the world as through a tunnel out of the oceanic darkness.  Sometimes that flesh is animate, sometimes it is not, but it is always horrifically doll-like all the same.  The female form becomes, from this perspective, the prime example and incarnation of all the horror of Freudian uncanny.  The woman holds that “secret place which propriety requires to be hidden;”[2] she becomes the queen of the “evil-eye” describing abjectly superhuman qualities; she animates the inanimate; her body asserts a déjà vu, the sex act necessarily calling for interactions with her genitalia, genitalia in many ways identical to those which once housed the man who penetrates her.  She produces a double in her daughters, all possessing the same secret, all proponents of that feminine enigma that defines the uncanny.  Woman with her secret cavern morphs into the mother of Freud’s uncanny.

Freud famously defines the female body, and subsequently female psychology, through what she lacks rather than what she possesses. “Women,” he says in his 1925 paper, “Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomic Distinction Between the Sexes”, “oppose change, receive passively, and add nothing of their own.”[3] Freud explains women’s hysteria by penis envy—always subconsciously wishing that they possessed a male member like their fathers’. For this reason, too, full breasts and buttocks define a woman less than the member absent from between her legs.  The female genitalia is defined by a hole, a gaping wound seeping with lacking as a result of her essential castration within Freudian psychology.  The threat of losing a sexual organ remains omnipresent to Freud, a “strong and obscure emotion” that warns of the impotence one would feel when stripped of his member, a similar impotence to his blindness and disability were his eye wounded.[4] The vagina itself even appears as an eye of unfathomable depth; an “evil eye.”[5]  That gaze of malice, of “evil intent,” is a means by which a living person can be uncanny.  According to Freud, we’ve all quailed under such a gaze during which looks betray emotions and acerbic words are left unspoken.[6]  The malicious gaze imbues the looker with secret powers, looking into those shocking eyes the viewer “sees a manifestation of forces that he did not suspect in a fellow human being.”[7]  The evil eye becomes uncanny because it comes from a superhuman entity, whose gaze is more potent than that of her fellows and from whose eyes one can be subjected to pain and humiliation.  Is not the vulva superhuman?  Although birth is essential to life and subsequently a quotidian endeavor, it is also horrifically impossible; at the very least it is unconceivable for man, for whom giving birth is an absolute impossibility.

Freud himself discusses his neurotic male patients’ portrayal of the female genitals.  They find the appearance of the secret female orifice homely in one sense, as encountering it is at once visiting one’s original ‘home’, and in another, uncanny (‘unhomely’).[8] The sexual act is thus closely tied to a moment of déjà vu; after having been lost in the woods and overtaken in the fog of life, the man stumbles upon a place where he has been before, marked by this “particular physical feature”, namely the vulva.[9]  If “love is homesickness”, as goes the popular saying to which Freud alludes, then the sexual act returns man to his origin, to a past that was long repressed in childhood.[10]  Perhaps, then, man’s desire for sex is merely his “compulsion to repeat” coming into the present, urging him homewards.[11]  At the very least that’s probably what the shrinking man in Hable con ella would say as he leaves his mother’s house to enter his wanton wife’s womb. This disorienting sensation is probably only increased by his insecurity with the female anatomy itself, rendering man “lost in the woods” of pubic hair, “overtaken by fog” of passion, and generally disoriented by the incomprehensible complexity of the female organ.

The female form is necessarily sinister because of its capacity to produce life.  A woman’s innards can create life from blood and flesh in the same manner that Victor Frankenstein fashioned his monster from discarded corpses. Within her uterus, a woman can grow both a living baby and a dead body, surrounded by viscous blood.  Her orifice not only can produce life; it can produce death.  A pregnancy is expected to produce new life, animate and crying with a first breath in the world. Instead a miscarriage only results in an empty cavern, a lifeless, soulless body.  The notion of birthing a dead child at first seems most repugnant, unimaginably horrible, but why is it not the other way around?  Shouldn’t the true horror come from birthing a live child, generated from the flesh and yet possessed with some enigmatic character, some unexplained agency, called life?  Freud explains that the sensation of the uncanny is often evoked when the object in question hovers in the liminal space between life and death, between human and automaton or animal.  We fear zombies and robots because they too closely resemble us, but with too marked a difference.  We fear that portraits and clowns and statues and dolls might suddenly come to life, but throughout our childhood we probably wished that our stuffed animals would become animated and play with us.  Freud explains that here “the sense of the uncanny would derive not from an infantile fear, but from an infantile wish or simply from an infantile belief”.[12]  The underlying fear, then, is that a relic of the past might return, that we might be rendered disoriented and placed back in our forgotten childhood.  As I have already discussed, the vagina and uterus provide this unsettling location where man is reduced to his infantile self.

The vagina has long been regarded with fear.  Its enigma comes from its hidden place, a secret cavern hidden in the crevice of the body, defined by an absence rather than by a presence.  Historically it has always been seen as cold and possessing a proclivity for uninvited travel, as in the case of hysterical women.  Even as a physical place, its definition is ambiguous and difficult to describe; one must describe a hole, a vacuum, rather than what fills it. One must describe an absence rather than a presence.  The woman’s body holds this enigma, this empty place which both exists and doesn’t, a place constantly hidden, rendering the rest of the female form mysterious. And for that reason, for her hidden capacity of life and death, of occupying the past and the present simultaneously, the female form is itself uncanny; uncanny and essential to life itself.

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Volver and the World of Women

Perhaps the most approachable of Almodóvar’s films is Volver, which tells a story of a beautiful mother (Raimunda, played by Penelope Cruz) and her teenage daughter (Paula).  After a brief visit to the village of her upbringing, Raimunda returns to Madrid to care for her daughter and good-for-nothing husband.  She works all day cleaning Madrid’s cathedral-like airport, all evening cooking for her family, cleaning up the empty cans of beer her husband Paco has consumed, and sleeps all night next to him as he masturbates to her sleeping form.  When one day Raimunda comes home to find her daughter anxiously awaiting her bus on the street corner, it’s immediately clear that something awful has happened.  Upon entering the house, Raimunda finds her husband face down in a giant pool of blood, murdered by young Paula when escaping his lecherous embrace and attempted rape.  The remainder of the film is fraught with the possibility that someone might discover what happened to Raimunda’s husband, as the women do their best to remove his body and get on with their lives.  Throughout all of this, Raimunda’s mother Irene, long thought dead, returns to her children, further paralleling mothers with daughters. Volver revolves around the concept of déjà vu—the uncanny return to a forgotten home and reverberation of the past in the present.  It transitions from Almodóvar’s “comic sphere of sexuality” into “a more somber ‘culture of death’” to which the characters are fated to return over and over again.[13]

Volver separates the spheres of men and women.  Different, yet as close as two sides of a coin, men and women do not occupy the same world throughout the film.  The separation between the overtly violent, cruel world of men and the enduring, caring and supernatural world of women underlines an indefinable uncanny quality inherent in women.  Straight, white men control the normal world through careful regulation of their rational rules.  However, when women apply their rules, the reality doesn’t look so ordinary.  When female structures are applied instead of men’s tired rules, we are sucked into a supernatural superstitious state in which logic itself is turned upon its head. We return to our mother’s logic—even Volver’s title means “to return” or “to go back”, directly relating to the theme of déjà vu Freud describes in his assessment of the uncanny.

“Cosa de mujeres”, Raimunda says to Emilio, the unknowing male neighbor from her doorway.  This one moment is particularly noteworthy because it was spoken offhandedly by Raimunda to Emilio while her husband’s dead body lies in her kitchen.  Rape and blood are commonplace in the victimized world of women, although they might be horrific from her neighbor’s point of view.  Minutes after returning home to find her husband stabbed to death, after desperately and methodically soaking up his blood with paper-towels and mop water, after returning his member to the very pants from which it never should have ventured and zipping up his tell-tale open fly—there is a knock on the door.  Raimunda and Paula are frantic, whispering possibilities to one another before the knocker clarifies his identity.  It is only Emilio, the kindly neighbor, there to give Raimunda the key to his restaurant so that she might look after it for him while he is in Barcelona.  Raimunda bustles to the door, wrapping herself in a bathrobe and nonchalantly peering out at him.  He inquires as to whether Paco would be able to help with the restaurant, to which she quickly responds that Paco—so luckily— has just found a new job and would be starting tomorrow.  He inquires about the smear of blood along her neck.  Raimunda responds demurely that it’s nothing, only a “cosa de mujeres”.

This scene highlights a distinct separation between men and women, displaying an insurmountable wall between the worlds each sex occupies. Raimunda’s casual comment trivializes her traumatic trials, diluting the fact that her daughter has just stabbed her lecherous husband and left his corpse to bleed upon the tiles.  Her comment equates this tragedy to the monthly menstrual hardships women experience.  The blood on her neck unites these two sinister aspects of the female condition.  Raimunda has faced tribulations before, raped and impregnated by her own father.  For her, rape, death, and unplanned life are as commonplace as her monthly cycle.  To Raimunda dead husbands and molested daughters might be tragic, but not inconceivable nor insurmountable.  The threat of rape and assault is as commonplace as menstrual blood; but to Emilio neither a woman’s period nor rape nor murder is understandable. Through this conjunctive mystification and trivialization of the woman’s world, even kind men like Emilio are further separated from the world of women and the “cosa de mujeres”.

A woman’s world is inextricably linked to blood, to bodies, to flesh.  At Aunt Paula’s funeral, when Raimunda’s sister Sole makes the unfortunate mistake of entering the men’s side of the mourning, she is greeted by wine drinking men, dressed in white shirts with discarded ties, talking cavalierly.  They stare at her, knowing too well that she doesn’t belong.  When Sole slinks behind the curtain separating the men from their wives, buzzing fills her ears.  The women buzz like flies, cluck like chickens, praying and gossiping, chatting and bemoaning the loss of their own.  Instead of uncaring white, they are clad in black, their fans flipping back and forth like a fly’s kaleidoscopic wings, beating the still air and murmuring.  They are a hive of bees, mourning the loss of their queen, fluttering and humming morosely.  This scene itself “marks” not only “a return to the world of women” but also a “return to La Mancha”, Almodóvar’s youthful surroundings, blending the world of women with the world of the traditional past, including scenes like the funeral which might have come straight from Lorca.[14]

Almodóvarian men and women are irrevocably different.  The men are cruel, whether in an overly civilized and excessively rational way, clad in white, or frightfully animalistic, dressed like the tiger in La piel que habito.  They rape their daughters and abandon their wives, lie around for days on end making nary a contribution to their families and expect to be cared for, waited on by their wives.  Their primary roles as “wayward husbands and incestuous fathers” occupy very little screen time, as “men are (or have been) quickly dispatched off screen”; what continues to lurk on throughout the film is the trauma that these men have caused within the women’s lives.[15]  On the other hand, Almodóvar’s women might have their issues, they may even be despicable characters, but they endure—they always live on.  They care for their community, stick up for friends, donate food for Raimunda’s restaurant, help to bury her dead husband’s body.  The Almodóvarian woman is a hero, a survivor, and a caregiver.  Raimunda’s name even means “protector”, a name that she honors, caring for her sister-daughter, her aunt, and her socially inept sister.  Really, Almodóvar’s women are just better off without the men.  After all, the men would never be able to understand them anyway.

After a purposeful return to her hometown to sweep off her mother’s grave and to check on her near dead Tia Paula, Raimunda has no intention of going back to the windy village which had refused to afford her any solace or comfort throughout her childhood.  Little does she know that the past is about to infiltrate her present. With Paco’s attempted rape of their daughter, Raimunda is forced to remember her daughter’s birth, her own rape at the hands of her father and her mother’s disregard and unawareness of the incest.   After years “of being lost in the woods”, making her way through life as a wife and sister-mother, Raimunda finds herself “back again… to the same spot”.[16]  Seeing her daughter suffer a similar fate at the hand’s of a father figure, and the sudden return of Raimunda’s mother Irene, reinstitutes a long forgotten family structure.  Raimunda not only goes back to her hometown, she goes back to her childhood where she was the victim of inconceivable abuse.  She not only goes back to Tia Paula’s house, she returns to the fire and the wind where she and her sister-daughter were conceived, and lastly she returns to the arms of her long lost mother.  Like the landmark windmills, with their ever-turning blades/vanes, of La Mancha, Raimunda is ever turning/returning to her home, guided by the relentless gusts of the wind.

The seemingly insurmountable categories of living and dead, past and present are decimated within Raimunda’s world.  As Smith’s review succinctly explains, “the supernatural is presented in a naturalistic way, resulting in an uncanny realism.”[17]  Even after death, spirits continue to appear in the lives of the living and the world of women are aware of this uncanny transcendence.  Almodóvar himself explains in an interview “It’s a film about the culture of death in my native La Mancha. . . The way  in  which the dead continue to be present in their lives, the richness and humanity of their rites mean that the dead never die.”[18]  But only the women are any the wiser, linking their slightly sinister forms with the supernatural forces surrounding them.  To the men, however, nothing really changes.  No men are aware of the stakes.  After all, it’s only a “cosa de mujeres”.

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Hable con ella, or the Zombie Wife

 

            Hable con ella’s plot is never a secret.  From the very first scene, an expository dance piece, the viewer has enough evidence to know what the plot will be.  The dance centers around two women, dressed in sickly gowns of transparent white silk. On opposite sides of a chair filled room, they stretch their arms out plaintively and blindly, unable to see their surroundings.  They are oblivious to the fact that another woman is in a similar situation in such close proximity, unaware of the parallel lives they lead and never knowing that a man tries desperately to clear obstacles out of their path as they dart from one side of the room to another.  The mood is one of desperate and chaotic loss.[19] In the audience, Benigno and Marco observe this tragic progression.  The body of the film revolves around two women in the same hospital’s permanent ward for coma victims, one Lydia, a famous matador, the other, Alicia an elegant ballerina, and their respective male caregivers, Marco and Benigno.  The comatose women are the like the folkloric slumbering princesses Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, confined to their enchanted hospital called “El Bosque”.[20]  Marco loves Lydia, although he is unaware that she was about to dump him after that deadly bullfight.  Benigno is Alicia’s primary nurse; he had been obsessed with her before her accident, obsessively watching her from the window of his mother’s house as she danced in the studio across the street.  Marco reacts the way a “normal” person ought to act to his lover being in a coma.  Benigno does everything in the strangest, creepiest possible way, eventually having sex with and wanting to marry incognizant Alicia.   But Alicia wakes up as a result of that rape-induced pregnancy; Lydia dies.

There is no doubt that Hable con ella presents the viewer with a creepy story, one laden with moral ambiguity.  Like Volver, “‘male’ and ‘female’ tropes … constitute a tacit distinction between biologically marked sex and the culturally malleable constructs of gender”, but Hable con ella takes this one step further by further exploring the subtle distinctions between life and death.[21]  One’s original reaction to Benigno’s rape of Alicia is generally repulsion—how could he have the audacity to take such advantage of her?  How could he believe that she loved him when she was unable even to speak? Unsettling though Benigno’s character might be, he did manage to bring Alicia back from her coma. His cure, unconventional though it certainly was, gave her life. Marco’s morally appropriate behavior, although enormously less disturbing, leaves Lydia to die in her unconscious state. This moral ambiguity is only one of the many uncomfortable instances throughout the film. All of these discomforts can be traced back to the sinister female form, or to men’s interaction with that form.

Two men sit side-by-side watching a dance performance; two women are left immobile, incognizant and incontinent by horrific accidents; three couples are made up of four people.  All of these moments are instances of doubling.  Watching scenes involving Marco and Lydia juxtaposed with scenes featuring Benigno and Alicia creates a strange sensation of déjà vu.  Clearing the way for their blind partners, Benigno and Marco live parallel lives keeping vigil over the seemingly empty bodies of the women they love.  Marco represents the reasonable, good natured, ambitious and largely normal Freudian ego.  Benigno, on the other hand, is the highly sentimental pre-Oedipal—believing in the imaginary, seemingly devoid of reason, “and acting out his desires with insufficient thought who is unconcerned by the absence of a father in his life and who was wholly devoted to ministering to his mother while she was alive”.[22] When at last Alicia’s father questions Benigno about his sexuality, implying that he is homosexual, Benigno acts out and strays beyond his allotted realm of care-giving.[23]  Marco and Benigno are two complex halves of the same coin.  Their appearances are certainly different, but they inhabit the same role as masculine caregiver to their female invalids.  Marco understands Benigno; he understands what Alicia’s survival would have meant to him.  Benigno might have spent all of his time attempting a “spontaneous transmission of mental processes” to Alicia by talking to her immobile corpse, but Marco was actually the receptor.  By the end of the film, not only is Marco the owner of Benigno’s flat that overlooks the infamous dance studio, cognizant of Alicia’s new love interest, but the “co-owner of [Benigno’s] knowledge, emotions and experiences.”[24]  The lines deciding Marco’s “true self” are blurred and substituted for Benigno’s past life.  Thus, not only are the unconscious women living parallel lives, but the selves of their men are “duplicated, divided and interchanged.”[25]  Marco’s doubling for Benigno at the end of the film is “an insurance against the extinction of the self;” while he exists, Benigno still remains.[26]

Zombies, vampires and boogiemen are staple sources of the uncanny. Although Hable con ella is  devoid of any of these fictional characters, it possesses two highly undead characters.  A coma is defined as a “deep sleep, a state of extreme unresponsiveness, in which an individual exhibits no voluntary movement or behavior.”[27] It is a state defined by an involuntary daze in which all of one’s actions are decided by one’s body.  Alicia’s eyes might open, her mouth might yawn (“I shit myself!” exclaims one of the nurses at the memory of Alicia’s occasional yawn). These unconscious women are defined by their inability to do anything voluntary, by their loss of free will and command over their bodies.  They have become automatons. But they are not dead; their bodies continue to function, their lungs to breathe, their hearts to beat.  A coma renders the seemingly simple line between life and death ambiguous.  Birth, generally thought of as a life-affirming process, results in one extremely surprising life and one counterintuitive death.  Although Alicia’s baby is dead upon delivery, she awakens from her excruciatingly long slumber as a result of the pregnancy’s shock to her body.  From a corpse, birth yields a tiny corpse from the mother’s entrails but renders the mother alive once again.  As the reader may recall, that it is the female form which is infected with this undead experience, which is perpetually the involuntary victim, which produces death instead of life from its womb.  Here, Alicia’s role is very similar to that of sleeping beauty; she awakens from her long slumber with a kiss of one sided love, an “upbeat ending that arrives at the end of this often dark and unsettling film” which doubles in both terrifying and optimistic features.[28]

As discussed earlier, the undead or automaton is so frightening because they are both very much like us, but with one seemingly integral part missing.  Marco has a difficult time touching Lydia’s unaware body but Benigno caresses and massages Alicia’s most personal flesh with great love and a notable lack of fear.  They place the women out on the terrace, bedecking them in bandanas and sunglasses and facilitating discussions between them although their lips are unable to move.  They turn Lydia and Alicia into life-size play-things, dolls that mimic companions and friends and cannot resist their affections.  In the presence of ambiguous un-death, these adult men return to their “infantile wish” that their dolls might come to life.[29]  Before the unknowing and sleeping female form, Marco and Benigno, disoriented, return to their forgotten childhoods.  The effect of this “representation of women who are comatose, voiceless and lacking in control over their own bodies” is unsettling, as Naughten argues “not least because it is men who are predominantly shown as ‘manipulating’ their bodies in these circumstances.” While in ‘life’ Lydia and Alicia might have been a dancer and a bullfighter, ‘masters of the body in motion’, they are left as unconscious objects for viewing and fondling for the remainder of the film.[30]

Speaking to an unconscious shell, expecting it to respond or imagining that it does respond, is not only an example of adults regressing to a childish state but evidence of another uncanny element—the omnipotence of thoughts.  Benigno certainly “overrates [his] own mental processes” when he assumes that he can not only communicate with Alicia, but that through his communication with her he can discern when she does and does not consent to something.[31]   He is blinded by “unbounded narcissism,” his perception of his own alien “magical power,” thinking that Alicia consents to him and imagining that she can say “sí, quiero” at a marriage ceremony.[32]   The normal “sanctions of reality” are nothing to him because he so strongly believes in his telepathic connection with Alicia.[33]  His perversity and Alicia’s vulnerability are exposed, rendering the viewer remarkably uncomfortable as Benigno fails to live up to his name.[34]  As Freud explains “the uncanny effect often arises when the boundary between fantasy and reality is blurred, when we are faced with the reality of something that we have until now considered imaginary, when a symbol takes on the full function and significance of what it symbolizes…”[35] As a result, one of the most sinister moments in the film is when Marco hears about Alicia’s stillborn child and her return to life.  Throughout the film the devoted men were berated by doctors telling them that their ward’s reawakening was inconceivable if not impossible.  But when Alicia miraculously reawakens as a result of Benigno’s unethical medical techniques, the viewer wonders if maybe talking with her, loving her, was a valid cure. [36]

Last but not least, let me remind the reader how this all relates to the female form.  Alicia’s naked breasts and supple legs appear constantly throughout the film.  Her relaxed nipples stare like eyes into the camera as they are fondled and lathered with lotion by Benigno’s hands. Her body tells the story of her abuse and recovery. It is flipped, scrubbed, stroked, and massaged over and over again. Her breasts are eyes wide open with nipples as pupils staring plaintively into the camera, witnessing everything that occurs to her body but without muscle or agency to respond, left only to swell and sound corporeal alarm in that fashion.

Freud’s description of the “evil eye” is a betrayer of poignant emotion even when denied verbal expression.[37] Almodóvar repeatedly focuses on shots of naked body parts separated from the rest of the body by a thin white cloth.  Whether it is the eyes of the mad woman scientist rolling in orgasmic pleasure in “Amante Menguante”, the lip-sticked mouth of Alicia, or Lydia’s masculine form as she is clad in her matador costume, these dismembered shots return the viewer to the binary between life and death.  Everything always begins and ends with the female form, from the first distraught dancer to the swaying backsides of the dancers in the final shot.  Even Benigno feels the pressure of “unintentional return” in his desperation to care for Alicia once his mother has died, to be “inside her” like the tiny lover in the film-within-a-film who dove headfirst to live in his wife’s womb.  The colossal vulva into which the shrunken man plunged stares ominously and omnisciently into the viewer, knowing the pain of rape, the satisfaction of pleasure, and the power to create new flesh.  Evoking the trope of the ‘vagina dentate’, the woman’s sex organ becomes a “teethed orifice that devours the overwhelmed male in the manner of a Venus fly trap”.[38] That carnivorous, unquenched, evil eye forever penetratively gazes, marking a woman for the sinister creature she is; hers is the mouth of the cave from which life sprang and to which lovers fall victim.

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La piel que habito, or Revenge by Castration

La piel que habito tells the story of surgeon Robert Ledgard. This scientist succeeds in creating a skin that cannot burn and is resistant to malaria; and although he claims it was tested on mice, it was actually developed on his female prisoner, Vera. His motives behind the creation of an iron-clad hide are highly personal.  His wife was in a car accident with her lover, Robert’s half-brother Zeca, from which she was left horribly burned. Under Robert’s solicitous care, the wife manages to survive the burns, but when she sees a reflection of herself, she commits suicide by jumping from a window of their country home in full view of their daughter, Norma. Norma struggles with her mother’s death throughout her young life, and when she attends a posh wedding she catches the eye of handsome young Vincent. High on a slew of drugs, Vincent takes Norma into the woods where they begin to have sex, sending Norma into a panic attack and screaming into the orgy-filled night. Vincent, surprised and befuddled by the substances, silences Norma by hitting her.   The “rape” breaks Norma’s mind; [39] she spends the remainder of her life, until she commits suicide, confined to an insane asylum, terrified of men and convinced that her father assaulted her.  In his rage and desire for revenge, Robert kidnaps Vincent and after a long imprisonment, castrates him and slowly turns him into a woman. The newly female Vera has the face of Robert’s dead wife, and when Zeca returns from his life of crime, he sees the woman he loved back from the dead and forces himself upon her.  Vincent suffers as a woman, the perpetual victim to a man’s will as a result of her mere concavity.  After pretending to be Robert’s co-conspirator, after kissing him and on the verge of making love, she manages to escape by killing Robert and his mother.  She returns to her mother, a dressmaker, explaining that she is her mother’s son, long lost Vincent.

As the film’s title suggests, skin is a central theme.[40] Surprisingly malleable, skin dictates one’s identity.  It can be cut and burned, harmed and tarnished, but at the same time it can be synthesized to endure.  A change in his skin turned Vincent into Vera and turned Robert’s beautiful wife into a suicide victim.  One’s skin is one’s permanent attire, able to transform beauty far beyond the garments sold in Vincent’s mother’s small shop.  It is the glossy skin around her face, the softness of her limbs, and he fold of her genitalia, which make a woman a woman.  Because her skin is soft rather than leathered by work, women are always the victims in this film.  Mothers are deprived of their children, burned in car accidents, suffocated by their sons.  Little girls are witnesses to horrendous visions, raped and tormented by images of their father.

The recurring theme of “doubling” returns again.  Robert turns his captive into a new version of his wife, synthetically designed to female perfection.  He gives Vincent her face, her eyes, and watches her with the same obsessive passion that he would have devoted to his wife after he found out about her affair.  This doubling, once again, is forced upon an unwilling party.  Vincent, the former male aggressor, is stripped of his identity, locked in a cave and treated like a criminal in Abu Ghraib.  First he is chained like an animal, then he is castrated and separated from his omnipotent male member of violence, lastly his old face is sculpted into that of a beautiful woman.  On one hand he is still Vincent, sculptor of ragged cloth faces, but on the other hand, he can never return to his life as a man and is now unrecognizable even to his mother.  Vincent returns from the dead, reincarnated into a new female form.

Let us go back to Volver ,which first presented us with this binary between women and men.  Despite Robert’s kindly nature toward his mother and toward his family, he is exceptionally brutal.  Behind the mask of a quest for knowledge, he tortures Vera by testing his experimental skin on a human being.  He is not beyond taking a captive in desperate revenge, locking another human being up in a cave and starving him.  Nor is he beyond shooting his own brother and his wife’s lover, although one might explain away this action as life saving.  Robert punishes his daughter’s rapist by depriving him of his member.  The look of shock that Vincent wears when, locked in a sterile ward, he looks down at his newly cavernous genitalia and is presented with dilators is not easy to forget.  What a perfect revenge!  Through his surgery, Robert forces his daughter’s aggressor to suffer the same misfortunes as his daughter, as if being a woman were the ideal form of punishment.  Castration, the foremost Freudian fear, deprives a man of his own organic double, his physical display of power.  But in the end, despite their implicit aggression and power, Zeca and Robert are murdered, Vincent is destroyed, and like Raimunda and Alicia, Vera endures.

Observed day and night by her captor, Vera stares back at Robert though the one-way glass in her room.  Her gaze is penetrative and accusatory; she knows full well that she is the object of his attention and desire.  Although she would be punished if she voiced this suspicion too early, Vera’s “evil eye” renders her “living person uncanny, credit[ing] her with evil intent.”[41]  This feminine mystique “turns [Vera] into an attractive figure with secret and foreboding powers.”[42] She is the synthesis of man and woman, human and superhuman, zombie and automaton, plaything and omnipotent manipulator.  As she stares into Robert’s room, she plans and exacts her own revenge.  Vera ruptures the divide between men and women, employing her newfound female mysticism to find revenge in the masculine world.

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Woman: The Mystical Victim

“When it comes time to write and direct, women attract me much more. I’ve always liked feminine sensitivity and when I create a character it’s much easier for me to do a feminine one, and I manage to shape it in a more solid and interesting way. On the other hand, women have more facets; they seem more like protagonist types. […] We, men, are cut from the same cloth, while women hold a greater mystery inside, they have more nuances and a sensitivity that is more authentic.”

Pedro Almodóvar (Willoquet-Maricondi)[43]

 

            Freud’s depiction of the uncanny appears time and time again in Almodóvar’s film. In Volver, it surfaces as a binary between the male reality and the female realm in which seemingly incontrovertible distinctions of life and death are no longer pertinent. Hable con ella paints the perfect scene of perversion.  Love interests are undead and the worst caretaker yields miraculous results while parading his darling around like a doll in her stroller. La piel que habito, for its part, goes one step further. The masculine world that once seemed so separate from the feminine is demolished by one surgeon’s revenge.  Changing one’s physical skin and most private organ results in a new identity, complete with the victimization and mystical powers of womanhood.

Through a strange synthesis of doubling, déjà vu, unintentional return, the evil eye, and the omnipotence of thoughts, Freud’s sinister themes appear again and again around the female form in Almodóvar’s films.  The woman’s body hovers on the cusp of life and death, masculinity and femininity.  She exposes something that should be hidden, her cavernous organ that can produce both life and death.  Worst of all, her oddly sinister form is perpetually pervasive.  She appears repeatedly: returning from the dead, enduring torment and rape, emerging from the most dissolved man.  What a burden and what a power, this sinister “cosa de mujeres”!

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Works cited

 

“Coma Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Assessment, and Treatment by MedicineNet.com.” Web. 15 Dec. 2011. <http://www.medicinenet.com/coma/article.htm&gt;.

Almodóvar, Pedro, Agustin Almodóvar, Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes, Jan Corne, Roberto Álam, et al. 2011.  La piel que habito. El Deseo.

Almodóvar, Pedro, Agustin Almodóvar, Esther Garcia, Penelope Cruz, Carmen Maura, Lola Duenas, Blanca Portillo, et al. 2007. Volver Return. Culver City, CA: Sony Pictures Classics.

Almodóvar, Pedro, Javier Camara, Dario Grandinetti, Leonor Watling, Rosario Flores, Mariola Fuentes, Geraldine Chaplin, Javier Aguirresarobe, Jose Salcedo, and Alberto Iglesias. 2003. Hable con ella. Culver City, CA: Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment.

Freud, Sigmund, David McLintock, and Hugh Haughton. 2003. The uncanny. New York: Penguin Books.

Freud, Sigmund. (1925j). Some psychical consequences of the anatomical distinction between the sexes. SE, 19: 248-258.

Goss, Brian Michael. 2008. “Te doy mis ojos (2003) and Hable con ella (2002): gender in context in two recent Spanish films”. Studies in European Cinema. 5 (1): 31-44.

Guse, Anette. 2007. “Talk to Her! Look at her! Pina Bausch in Pedro Almodóvar’s Hable con ella“.Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies. 43 (4): 427-440.

Kinder, Marsha, Pedro Almodovar, Esther Garcia, Jose Luis Alcaine, and Jose Salcedo. 2007. “Review of Volver”.  Film Quarterly. 60 (3): 4-9.

Nandorfy, M. 1995. “La representacion ideologica de los instintos basicos en Basic Instinct y Matador”. REVISTA DE CANADIENSE DE ESTUDIOS HISPANICOS. 20 (1): 81-92.

Naughten, Rebecca. 2007. “Comatose women El Bosque: Sleeping beauty and other literary motifs in Pedro Almodarovar’s Hable con ella“.  Studies in Hispanic Cinemas. 3 (2): 77-88.

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[1] Freud, Sigmund, David McLintock, and Hugh Haughton. 2003. The uncanny. New York: Penguin Books, 141.

[2] Ibid, 130

[3] Freud, Sigmund. (1925j). Some psychical consequences of the anatomical distinction between the sexes. SE, 19: 252.

[4] Freud, 145.

[5] Ibid, 145.

[6] Ibid, 145.

[7] Ibid, 150

[8] Ibid, 151

[9] Ibid, 144.

[10] Ibid, 152.

[11] Ibid, 145.

[12] Ibid, 141.

[13] Kinder, Marsha, Pedro Almodóvar, Esther García, José Luis Alcaine, and José Salcedo. 2007. “Review of Volver”.Film Quarterly. 60 (3): 6.

[14] Smith, P. J. 2006. “WOMEN, WINDMILLS AND WEDGE HEELS: With Volver Pedro Almodovar has made a welcome return to comedy, the country and his favourite actresses”. SIGHT AND SOUND. 16 (6): 16.

[15] Kinder, 6.

[16] Freud, 144.

[17] Smith, 16.

[18] Kinder, 7.

[19] Guse, Anette. 2007. “Talk to Her! Look at her! Pina Bausch in Pedro Almodóvar’s Hable con ella“.Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies. 43 (4): 434.

[20] Naughten, Rebecca. 2007. “Comatose women in El Bosque: Sleeping beauty and other literary motifs in Pedro Almodarovar’s Hable con ella“.  Studies in Hispanic Cinemas. 3 (2): 77.

[21] Goss, Brian Michael. 2008. “Te doy mis ojos (2003) and Hable con ella (2002): gender in context in two recent Spanish films”. Studies in European Cinema. 5 (1): 31.

[22] Ibid, 40.

[23] Ibid, 40.

[24] Freud, 141-142.

[25] Ibid, 141-142.

[26] Ibid, 142.

[27] “Coma Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Assessment, and Treatment by MedicineNet.com.” Web. 15 Dec. 2011. <http://www.medicinenet.com/coma/article.htm&gt;.

[28] Naughten, 77.

[29] Freud, 141.

[30] Naughten, 80; Kinder,  254.

[31] Freud, 147.

[32] Ibid, 147.

[33] Ibid, 147.

[34] Conversely, as Naughten points out, Alicia meets every implication of her name.  Like Alice in Wonderland she might have fallen into a dream world, but unlike Lydia she recovers from her slumber.  These fairytale tendencies make for a paper in and of themselves (which Naughten provides magnificently in “Comatose women in El Bosque: Sleeping beauty and other literary motifs in Pedro Almodarovar’s Hable con ella”, but their surreal yet traditionalized appeal is certainly worth a mention in an essay which focuses on the uncanny.

[35] Freud, 150.

[36] Although this is certainly a strange way to qualify rape, I do think it’s the appropriate characterization in this situation.

[37] Freud, 148.

[38] Chaudhuri 2006: 95–102.

[39] Although whether or not this was actually rape is rather ambiguous.

[40] Released only in 2011, not much scholarly work has thus far been done on La piel que habito, thus I will largely rely on my own thoughts and analyses toward the subject.

[41] Freud, 149.

[42] Freud, 149.

[43] As recorded by Anette Guse in her 2007 article “Talk to Her! Look at her! Pina Bausch in Pedro Almodóvar’s Hable con ella”.