Friday, January 13, 2012

The Skin I Live In: Almodóvar meets Seneca


Elena Anaya and a blurry Antonio Banderas in The Skin I Live In

This week, with my friend Selena, I went to see the latest film by Spanish director, Pedro Almodóvar, The Skin I Live In. On my way by ferry to the cinema, I read a short essay on the Stoic philosopher, politician and playwright Seneca, who served the emperor Nero as tutor and advisor, and was ordered by him to commit suicide in 65 CE. As chance would have it, this turned out to be the perfect prelude to viewing Almodóvar’s film.

Most critics have not known quite what to make of The Skin I Live In, admitting that they enjoyed it, but at the same time complaining that it seems cold, and lacks the compassion that usually characterizes Almodóvar’s work. It seems to me that this confusion clears if The Skin I Live In is read as a drama in the spirit of Stoic tragedy. It is not designed to elicit compassion, but rather to generate what the Stoics called apatheia. In doing so, it is a salutory alternative to mainstream cinema that stickily endorses revenge rather than letting us see it, clearly and even joyfully, for what it is.

The apatheia cultivated by the Stoic is an attitude of happy indifference toward external events, designed to free one from passions, particularly anger and grief, that might otherwise arise in the face of undesirable changes in fortune. Seneca tells us that the person who achieves this emotional control is rare; the Stoic sage is like a phoenix, appearing perhaps once every five hundred years. He gives us no portraits of such exemplary figures in his tragedies, but swings to the opposite extreme, depicting the extremes of human passion, cruelty and suffering, to the point where some readers, including Erasmus and Diderot, have (mistakenly) speculated that playwright and the philosopher must have been two different men.

A contemporary rewriting of Seneca’s drama, Thyestes is showing as part of the Sydney Festival – the story involves bitter sibling rivalry for power, sexual infidelity, murder, and, the pièce de résistance, cannibalism, with Thyestes lured by his brother, Atreus, to unwittingly consume the cooked flesh of his own children. This might be read as a heavy-handed moral warning about the dangers of giving in to the lust for power (or haute cuisine), but Seneca’s dramatic style is far from such earnest didacticism.

There are didactic Stoic voices in his plays: nurses and advisors counsel Stoic dispassion – but their message is typically distorted and thrown back in their faces by the passionate and the powerful. And the spectator can only feel grateful for this, since his gory tales of greed, deception and violent revenge are undeniably enjoyable. As we see outrages, betrayals and acts of violence piling upon another with the kind of flamboyant excess that was later imitated by the playwrights of the Elizabethan era in England, the mood in the audience typically becomes increasingly cheerful and serene.

Perhaps Seneca is training us in Stoic indifference, not by providing us with impossibly tranquil models to imitate, but by parading extreme fluctuations of human emotion at such a rate that we cannot sustain a passionate response ourselves, but let go of any personal distress and settle into an engaged, but calm and light-hearted mood. This, it seems to me, is close to the apatheia the Stoics sought, which is misunderstood if it is seen as involving cold detachment from worldly life.

by Louise Bourgeois
Almodóvar’s film achieves a similar effect. It tells a fantastical tale about a plastic surgeon who uses transgenesis to create living skin, and experiments with it, illegally, on an extremely beautiful and flexible young woman who is living as a prisoner in his house. The story proceeds, and turns back on itself, via narrative twists involving rape, madness and murder, and secretive, violent family relations. As in the Thyestes, a major motive for the characters’ actions is the desire for revenge, which is depicted without moralistic judgment or justification. This being Almodóvar, there are also fabulous clothes, beautiful people, quirky jokes, gender puzzles and many appreciative references to the work of other artists, particularly that of the French-American sculptor Louise Bourgeois.

In suggesting that Almodóvar’s film, like Seneca’s play, is likely to produce a response of apatheia, it should be clear that I’m not suggesting that it will put you in an ‘apathetic’ state – the connotations of the English word are quite different. It would be more apt to wonder whether the pleasure to be had from watching family members destroy one another isn’t uncomfortably close to the disreputable emotion of schadenfreude – malicious joy taken in the suffering of others.

A disturbing amount of contemporary film and literature seems to depend for its impact on stirring up nasty emotions, particularly that of morally justified vengefulness: we are encouraged to take pleasure in the suffering of certain characters because they “deserve” it, and to share in the vindictive joy of the ultimately triumphant hero, or often heroine, as she takes her revenge – I’d put Verhoeven’s film Black Book in this category, to take just one example. But such moralistic vindictiveness is not schadenfreude, and it is at the other end of the emotional spectrum from apatheia.

Schadenfreude is not moralistic. On the contrary, it is an amoral, even a guilty, or at least naughty pleasure. We know that morally, we’re not supposed to react to the suffering of others with delight; schadenfreude is never self-righteous, it is a joy that bubbles up, often in spite of efforts to appear more appropriately sober and sympathetically concerned. It can have a malicious, even sadistic edge, but it can also be quite innocent, the kind of spontaneous joy that makes us laugh at slapstick – or take pleasure in watching events driven by the worst elements of human nature unfold with relentless, unstoppable logic, on stage or on screen.

In part, such pleasure may come from feeling that we are safe on the shore, watching a shipwreck in the distance – most troubles of our own are mere soap-bubbles in comparison to the suffering of Thyestes. But if the Stoic playwright succeeds, then our enjoyment will extend to include our own suffering, regarded as part of a grand spectacle that can be watched with interest and calm delight.

After seeing The Skin I Live In, I left the cinema in high spirits. My book of Seneca’s essays remained unopened on the ferry ride that took me back across the harbour. Instead of reading, I sat outside and let the wind blow my hair about while I admired the delicate, luminous shades of lilac and purple produced in the evening sky by gleams of late, golden light between the clouds, and their undulating reflections in water stirred into wide ripples by the movement of the ferry. I felt a buoyant and expansive pleasure in the beauty of nature, an enjoyment that strangely enough – and Stoically enough - seemed connected to having just watched a stylish film about the hyperbolic suffering wreaked by the human desire for power and revenge. 

Louise Bourgeois 1911-2010

18 comments:

Oliver said...

That's a very interesting take on it. I just watched an interview where Almodóvar talked about how he didn't want a "rock and roll" Banderas, but more of an empty (dare I say "stoic"?), controlled performance this time.

I dissected the film from more of a Jungian point-of-view:
http://soothandlies.com/2012/01/late-to-the-picture-alchemy-in-the-skin-i-live-in-part-1/

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