There were many triggers other than the Leelah Alcorn case that hit me last year, and one in particular that stood out. Oddly enough, it was a melodramatic horror film (although a very accomplished and gripping one) by Pedro Almodóvar, starring Antonio Banderas as a driven (but utterly psychopathic) Hammeresque surgeon – Dr. Ledgard – who could have easily been played by Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff in a former generation. Spoilers follow…
The protagonist of this film is the victim of the mad scientist, although in spite of being a kidnapping victim and forced experimental subject he commands somewhat limited sympathy: for he was “volunteered” for this role out of revenge, having committed an incomplete but still disastrous date-rape of Ledgard’s daughter. This young man – a drug-addled wastrel by the name of Vincente (Jan Cornet / Elena Anaya) – is captured, tortured, and subjected to experiments that ultimately amount to a full skin replacement and gender reassignment. Now fully transformed into Ledgard’s creation – a beautiful pseudo-woman by the name of “Vera” – Vincente only exists inside his own head, and to rub salt in the wound he is expected to be grateful and accepting of his transformation; expected to subsume the last vestiges of his identity and find his only value and purpose in being the living expression of Ledgard’s brilliant but perverse artistic streak.
Obviously, some elements of this story inspired envy in me. Transition is a hard process to even initiate, and with results rarely as flawless as this fiction would have us believe (The fully-transitioned Vincente being portrayed by the strikingly beautiful and not-at-all-trans actress Ms. Anaya). Yet from the trans perspective, there is a strange empathy for the character’s situation. Now unable to identify with his body, essentially imprisoned within himself, Vincente resorts to creativity and mindfulness to remain sane while awaiting his opportunity to escape, such as sculpture, drawing, and a daily yoga routine. So many of us have been in this place in one way or another … yet can one ever be truly happy within a prison cell without any hope of release? Vincente, evidently thinking not, eventually tricks his captor into a false sense of security, shoots him dead (following a scene curiously reminiscent of “Lord of the Rings Part III”: “You promised!” … “I lied.”), and he escapes to an uncertain fate.
The ending is ambiguous, leaving it uncertain if Vincente will attempt to revert back to his male gender. The scene where he apparently kisses his archived missing person photograph goodbye before killing his captor sows some doubt over his intentions: perhaps he is aware that in his six years of captivity and torture, the sense of personhood he has painstakingly clung to may well be his own, sacrosanct from his captor, but it still can no longer be said to be that of the shallow, naive, egotistical, and callous young man he was before. Still, on one level it would certainly be a poor show of his new-found strength and maturity to accept the false “Vera” identity, even out of expediency or the desire to avoid awkward questions from the cops … though having said that, Ledgard’s house-cum-surgery ought to provide ample evidence of why killing the man was a public service.
What struck me most personally was the depiction of Vincente’s resort to creativity and art as the expression of his innate freedom, during the years of captivity and inflicted gender dysphoria. Everything I have written for several years now has been on the theme of metamorphosis, either in straightforward gender-switching or channelled into other genres (science fiction, fantasy, vampire, etc). Of course, this only works to an extent. If one has to come back to the loathed identity, as one inevitably does, this is only a temporary fix, anaesthetising the pain rather than fixing the wound. Art is a double-edged sword, alleviating and sublimating our distress even as it analyses and sharpens it. As this film finally and brutally makes clear, no-one is made to be happy in a cage, however nicely gilded.
(Elena Anaya as Vincente in La Piel que Habito)