How to deal with intertextuality in AD?

Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In: a case study

By Raquel Sanz-Moreno (University of Valencia, Spain)


In 1997, Navarrete, one of the first professional Spanish audio describers, defined audio description (AD) as ‘the art of translating images into words’. Since then, the academic, social and professional interest that this service has steadily increased. The Spanish regulation Audiodescripción para personas con discapacidad visual. Requisitos para la audiodescripción y la elaboración de audioguías (AENOR 2005) establishes the guidelines for the AD of theatre, cinema and museum guides in Spain. The guidelines state that the aim of every AD is that the receptor should perceive the audiovisual content ‘in as similar a way as possible to that perceived by a person who sees’[1] (2005: 4). In other words, the goal is to eliminate the barriers imposed by sensory impairment when enjoying an audiovisual product and to place the person with a visual impairment as close as possible to a normal viewer, having the same information and also enjoying the film in the same way. The role of the describer is both essential and complex because they have to decide which elements they want to describe, taking into consideration the time restrictions imposed by the film itself, and also determine the adequate wording to use. In this sense, the intertextual elements of a film constitute an interesting challenge for the describer. The aim of this article is to analyse the AD of the film The Skin I Live In (2011) by the La Mancha director Pedro Almodóvar, paying special attention to intertextuality. We will identify the audio described elements (and those which have been omitted in the AD) and we will determine the translation strategies used by the describer, in order to consider whether, in fact, the analysed AD puts the visually impaired receptor in a better position to understand the film, than the average viewer.

Keywords: audiovisual translation, audio description ad, intertextuality, accessibility, receptor

©inTRAlinea & Raquel Sanz-Moreno (2019).
"How to deal with intertextuality in AD? Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In: a case study", inTRAlinea Vol. 21.

This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
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1. Audio description

1.1. Definition and Goals

Orero (2007) recounts that AD first began in Spain after the Spanish civil war when, according to the radio and TV journalist Jorge Arandes, the journalist Gerardo Esteban transmitted audio descriptions of films directly from the cinema via Radio Barcelona. AD was first professionalized in the 1990s, with the Audesc system launched by the Spanish Organization for the Blind (ONCE). Since then, the interest in this new discipline has considerably increased. The Spanish regulation Norma UNE 153020: Audiodescripción para personas con discapacidad visual. Requisitos para la audiodescripción y elaboración de audioguías (Audio description for people with visual impairment: requirements for audio description and development of audio guides) (AENOR 2005), defines AD as a

communication support service consisting of a set of techniques and skills applied in order to compensate for the lack of understanding of the visual part contained in any type of message, providing adequate oral information that translates or explains it, so that the potentially visually impaired receptor perceives that message as a harmonic whole and in as similar a way as possible as that perceived by a person who sees (AENOR 2005: 4).

The aim of AD is to facilitate the comprehension of sensory impaired persons, offering the necessary information to make the audiovisual product accessible and, therefore, make them aware of what happens on the screen. The Spanish norm tries to equal, if possible, the normal viewers’ and visually impaired viewers’ perceptions so that the latter can understand and enjoy the audiovisual product in the same place and at the same time.

AD exists because of, and for, a visually impaired audience. The receptors are the rationale of an AD; consequently, the describer should have a complete understanding of the describer does not madetheir audience’s needs and expectations, as well as the causes and different types of blindness. We cannot forget that blind and low vision people form a heterogeneous group: a completely blind person does not perceive like a person who has low vision; in the same vein, a person who suffered blindness from childhood ‘sees’ differently from a person who has progressively lost their vision as an adult. There are people who rely heavily on AD whereas others just use it as guidance or support. In any case, an understanding of the target audience will help the describer know which strategies to use and avoid being condescending towards the spectator by providing either too much information or not enough (Díaz Cintas 2007: 53). When confronted with intertextuality, the describer has to maintain a tricky balance between, on the one hand, trusting the cultural background of the audience and their capacity to infer the hidden connections of the film, but, on the other hand, being ready to fill gaps in their cultural knowledge and be a guidance for the understanding and enjoyment of the film.  

The role of the describer is to become a bridge, a guide for the spectator, describing the relevant elements of the film in order for the visually impaired audience to build up a concrete idea of the characters, the settings, the actions etc. The Spanish norm states that the information provided by the image must be respected, without censuring or cutting presumed excesses nor complementing supposed lack of information (AENOR 2005: 8). The regulation raises a complex issue: the amount of information which has to be provided by the describer when confronted with an image and, above all, how to determine when any supposed addition or (il)legitimate or (un)justified omission of information is needed, as we should not forget that there is time constraint in AD which has to be taken into account by the describer. In this sense, the Guidance on Standards for Audio Description (ITC 2000), which regulates AD in the United Kingdom, establishes that the describer must spot the visual clues left by the film’s director and describe them without revealing the plot prematurely. It stresses the need to provide the information contained in the images, but on some occasions, some extra information is welcomed, if it can help the audience understand better.

Describers in the US are not encouraged to add anything or offer any information that is not apparent on the screen at that moment. Rather than saying a character is angry, they describe the action as they see it and let the visually impaired viewer decide what that action implies. British research seems to indicate that additional help is appreciated, as long as it is not condescending or interpretative (ITC 2000: 15).

The line between adding information to provide insight and a patronising attitude towards the visually impaired audience (so-called ‘spoon feeding’), is difficult to define, due to the heterogeneity of the receptors, who have their own tastes, preferences and expectations. Dealing with filmic intertextuality offers numerous challenges for the describer, who should consider its relevance in the film, but also the audience’s knowledge or familiarity with it, in order to determine whether to reveal it (or not) and how to do so. 

1.2. AD and intertextuality

The increase in audio described hours on Spanish television (Centro Español del Subtitulado y la Audiodescripción 2015), as well as the organisation of international and national conferences, meetings and congresses on accessibility,[2] show that AD now plays a fundamental role in Translation Studies Research. Nevertheless, intertextuality in AD has not been studied in any depth yet. One of the first studies to tackle this topic was written by Valero Gisbert (2012), who presents an analysis of the intertextual references in Italian in the AD of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Burton 2005). Gisbert insists on the need to carry out reception studies, both with normal viewers and with the visually impaired, in order to determine whether the decisions of the describer meet the expectations of the target audience. Taylor (2014) also analyses intertextuality in the film Inglorious Basterds (Tarantino 2009) as the film presents numerous references to other films, books, historic characters, music and so on. Taylor once again raises the delicate question faced by the describer when producing an AD script: “There is a fine line between beneficial intervention and superfluous over assistance and it is the line that the audio describer has to tread” (2014: 37). He suggests an interesting strategy to solve the question of intertextuality in AD, which consists of including these references in an audio introduction, following the previous studies of Fryer and Romero Fresco (2013, 2014), a very useful strategy considering the time constraints of AD. Moreover, Taylor proposes a useful checklist for AD script writing when having to deal with intertextual references in a film (2015: 44):

  • Decide whether you [the audio describer] want to preserve your target audience’s intellectual pleasure in detecting the reference: enhance only the marker;
  • Decide whether you want to give priority to rendering meaning more explicit: link marker and marked;
  • Decide whether you want to reckon with the didactic function of AD: link marker and marked.

Szarkowska and Jankowska (2015), following in the wake of Valero Gisbert, carry out an interesting reception study with a visually impaired audience on the AD of foreign films in Poland, and tackle the challenges set by intertextuality in those films (among other items). They propose some strategies for the different intertextual elements in the film Midnight in Paris (Allen 2011), analysing their meanings and considering the time at their disposal, as well as the presumed familiarity of the target audience with the intertextual reference. They decided to include an explanation in the audio introduction to the film of a camera shot that is clearly intended to remind us of Monet’s Les Nymphéas, as well as a brief description of one of Picasso’s paintings (2015: 260), in order to help the audience establish the connections behind the images.

In this article, we have classified the intertextual references following the taxonomy proposed by Szarkowska and Jankowska when dealing with culture-specific items in audio description (2015): “naming, description without naming, description and naming” or a combination of strategies, in order to analyse the references in the film by Pedro Almodóvar, The Skin I Live In. But we have also adopted different strategies which were, for example, not described by the mentioned authors, like addition and generalisation. From a descriptive perspective, we will explain the strategies used by the describer to deal with intertextual references, taking into consideration what a viewer with no visual impairment would see.  

2. AD of intertextuality in The Skin I Live In.

2.1. The Skin I Live In., a film by Pedro Almodóvar

Nowadays, an increasing number of films are launched on the market with AD, both in cinemas and on DVD or Blu-ray. Many communication companies ensure accessibility services (AD, Subtitling for the deaf, and Sign language) through different apps in smartphones or tablets. AD is no longer an exception, as many audiovisual producers have decided that their products must be launched with accessibility features. Pedro Almodóvar’s films are a good example. Volver (2006), Broken Embraces (2009), The Skin I Live In. (2011), I’m So Excited (2013) and Juliet (2016) were released and marketed with AD in Spain.

In this article, we will focus on The Skin I Live In., a film which aroused the curiosity of critics and public, as Antonio Banderas was acting in an Almodóvar film again, more than 20 years after their last collaboration in the film Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990).[3] The cast also included acclaimed actors like José Luis Gómez, Marisa Paredes, and young stars of the Spanish cinema like Blanca Suárez, Jan Cornet or Elena Anaya.

The Skin I Live In. is different from other Almodóvar’s films because it is based on the book Mygale (1984) by Thierry Jonquet. This is a novelty, as the Spanish director usually writes his own scripts, and does not adapt novels for the big screen. Nevertheless, Almodóvar narrates the story in his own style, leaving his mark on the characters, the action, and the setting.

The AD script of The Skin I Live In was written by the Spanish audio describer Iñaki Arrubla within the Accessible Cinema Project (Proyecto Cine Accesible) launched by the companies Fundación Orange and Navarra de Cine. The film was marketed in DVD and Blu-ray with this AD in Spain. In order to analyse it, we have transcribed the AD script provided with the film, focusing on the AD of intertextual references, as can be seen below.        

2.2. Synopsis of the film

Robert Ledgard is a well-known plastic surgeon who has participated in several face-transplant surgeries, rebuilding scarred and burned faces for years, as his wife suffered terrible burns in a fatal car accident. Ledgard is doing research on transgenesis and wants to carry out some experiments with a human guinea pig. He will count on Marilia, a maid who has taken care of him since his childhood, to carry out his plan.

Ledgard is invited to a wedding, and he goes with his daughter, Norma, who has just come out of a psychiatric hospital and is still on therapy and medication because of the death of her mother. That night, Norma meets Vicente and they decide to leave the wedding party and go for a walk. Robert looks for her in the garden, and he sees a young man riding out of the estate on a motorcycle. Retracing the path that the motorcycle came from, he finds Norma lying on the ground, unconscious. He thinks that Vicente is responsible and decides to seek revenge, kidnapping him and carrying out all kinds of experiments on him. The relationship between them will evolve towards unimaginable limits, as Vicente will undergo a gender reassignment surgery against his will, and consequently will be transformed in a woman, Vera, who will become Ledgard’s prisoner and lover.

2.3. Descriptive analysis of the intertextual references in The Skin I Live In.

The Skin I Live In. is basically a story of revenge. In the director’s words, ‘I only knew that the narration had to be austere and sober, without visual rhetoric […]. There has been too much bloodshed in the past, even if these scenes have not been shown in the film’ (Almodóvar 2011). Almodóvar starts with the story written by Jonquet, but makes some remarkable changes in the plot, the characters and the places.  and avoids showing the explicit violence and brutality of the original written story In any case, there is a considerable number of intertextual references in the film, something which is quite common in Pedro Almodóvar’s films, as we shall see in this article.

2.3.1. Paintings

Robert lives in El Cigarral, a real fortress in which Vera has been imprisoned. The mansion is majestic, although it is cut off from the world by a fence. The walls of the house and of Robert’s room are covered by enormous paintings. In particular, there are two paintings with big pink flowers and two other Renaissance canvasses, where we see a naked woman lying in bed and looking seductively at the viewer. There are Titian’s paintings Venus With an Organist and Cupid (1550) and Venus of Urbino (1538). The presence of the latter has awoken the describer’s interest, as the AD script says:

(00:07:14) Shortly after, again wearing a suit and tie, he goes up a wooden staircase to the first floor. There are big paintings on the walls. Among them, there is Venus of Urbino, by the Renaissance painter Titian.

The describer has not missed this detail and has used explicitation, introducing the title of the painting and the painter, and adding the period in which the artist lived. This is what Swarkowska and Jankowska (2015) call “naming”,[4] combined with another translation technique, addition. As mentioned by Almodóvar himself (2011), the presence of this painting was to show that ‘before, in this house, beauty was admired.’ It is worth stressing the size of the canvases, but also the sensuality of both Venuses, lying naked on unmade beds, something very revolutionary for the time. Titian did not portray Venus as a goddess: these are real women, conscious of their beauty and their nudity, breaking away from the idealism that was characteristic of the renaissance. Both paintings are a reflection of Vera who is beautiful and seductive, even if she has been transformed against her will. Both beauty and seduction will be the weapons that will help her to flee from her kidnapper. It is expected that viewers will be able to establish this connection.

In the next scene, Almodóvar introduces a shot of Vera lying in bed, naked, although this time Vera has her back to the camera, in order to emphasize the similarities between Vera and Venus. The image is equally sensual. The AD script refers again to Titian’s painting, this time in order to explicitly establish the parallel between the postures of Vera and Venus:

(00:07:47) [Robert] Turns on the large plasma screen hung on a wall. He observes Vera, who is sleeping naked in the room adjacent to his bedroom. It is the image of a camera which monitors the young woman in real time. Vera is on her back and her image is similar to that of Titian’s painting seen in the corridor. Robert contemplates the screen, looking at the perfect anatomy of the young woman. 

As we can see, the describer has named the painter and has also revealed the relationship between the painting and the female character. The audio describer could have decided to describe the painting and its size, the main character, the colours, but he has not.. His decisions raise interesting questions: What does a normal viewer see when Robert is going up this staircase? What attracts their attention? Would they know that the author of the painting is Titian? Would they recognise the Renaissance elements in the painting? Would they be able to perceive the visual relationship between the painting and the female character of the film?[5] If not, it seems that the receptor who is enjoying the film with AD would have more information than the normal viewer. We should not forget that in the corridor there is another painting by Titian and another two enormous paintings with flowers which are not named in the AD. Their titles are Pigalle, Rosemary Rose and Spek’s Yellow by Jorge Galindo. The AD refers to them with a generalization, “There are big paintings”, but there is no description and no historical information about them is provided. It is probable that the describer considered the paintings to be too unfamiliar to the target audience to be worth specifying. According to Almodóvar, the paintings represent Robert’s admiration for beauty. 

Later, in Robert’s room, we find another colourful painting in which two faceless figures are in natural surroundings: a woman reclining and a man standing over her. It is the canvas Artist Creating a Work of Art (2008) by the Spanish painter Guillermo Pérez Villalta, the former collaborator of Almodóvar in previous films like Pepi, Luci, Bom (1980), Labyrinth of Passions (1982) and Law of Desire (1987). In this case, the describer does not make any allusion to the presence of this painting, although it also has a special meaning because it alludes to the relationship between the artist (Ledgard) and the work of art he is creating (Vera): like the figures in the painting they are both faceless, and it is difficult to perceive their feelings or emotions. In spite of its significance, however, the describer chooses to omit the painting. The AD does mention the picture of Norma, Ledgard’s daughter, when she was 10 years old, and which is on his bedside table. Norma’s character has not been introduced yet, so the AD script is advancing some information and explaining that Robert has a daughter, something a normal viewer does not know at that moment.

(00:07:42) On the bedside table, there is a picture of his daughter who is 10 years old. 

These are not the only paintings in the film. There are many other canvasses which could go unnoticed by a normal viewer. In Ledgard’s room, we see Naranjas y Limones (1927) by Julio Romero de Torres and Memories of olives by Alberto Vargas. We also see both Perdidos en Candem by Juan Uslé and Ciencias Naturales by Juan Gatti in Ledgard’s room. They all have a symbolic meaning, recalling traits of the main character. Pedro Almodóvar ordered a series of paintings on human anatomy from Gatti for the decoration of Ledgard’s office (Navarrete Galiano 2012: 81). They present a human body, skinless, in the middle of nature (flowers, butterflies, and a parakeet). The body constitutes, again, a symbol of Vera, who has lost her skin, and keeps looking for her place in nature and in the world that surrounds her.[6]

Almodóvar has included paintings in all his films either for aesthetic purposes or to add semantic content (Navarrete Galiano 2012: 75). We consider this to be the case with The Skin I Live In, where all the paintings play a significant role in the portrayal of the character’s personality. Nevertheless, as we have seen, the AD only describes one painting, the one which is the most important in terms of the plot because of its size, its main character, and its subject. We consider that a lack of time does not justify this exclusion, as there are numerous silent gaps in the film which could have been exploited. In our opinion, an audio introduction, as proposed by Fryer and Romero Fresco (2013), would be an interesting and feasible alternative to explore, and further research should be carried out on this.

2.3.2. The sculptures

At the beginning of the film, Vera has her back to camera, cutting out pieces of fabric and pasting them onto a bust. On the table, there is an art book, on the cover of which we can see the name of Louise Bourgeois thanks to a close-up. The AD is much more detailed:

(00:01:59) Vera moulds small busts of faceless heads inspired by the work of the sculptor and painter Louise Bourgeois, artist specialised in surrealistic and avant-garde works related to the unconscious.

 As we can see, the AD presents a detailed description that goes further than the images: it names the artist and it explains that she is a painter and a sculptor. The AD relates Bourgeois’ work to the artistic movement to which she belongs and to the unconscious, using an amplification of information which cannot be deduced from the images on screen. The presence of Bourgeois in the film has a special meaning. In fact, it is not the only reference to the famous French artist. Further on in the film, Vera watches a television documentary on Bourgeois. In a short clip, we can see the work Seven in bed (2007) but no audio information is provided, so a normal viewer must identify it (or not) on the basis of the images alone, and establish the parallels between the sculpture moulded by Vera and Bourgeois’ work on the TV screen. In this example, the audio describer has combined  different AD strategies (naming the title of the documentary + addition).

(01:28:29) Days after. She watches the TV channel Arte. It is the documentary The spider, the lover and the mandarin about the life and work of the sculptor and painter of French origin. There are surrealistic and avant-garde works, mostly related to the unconscious. Vera watches them attentively.

The audio describer refers to the French origin of the artist, to enable the audience to establish the link with Bourgeois, and therefore, with the sculptures.  

Later, Vera replicates Bourgeois’ work, using a catalogue of her artwork. Almodóvar shows us again a close-up of the cover in which the name of the artist can be clearly read and two pages with sculptures by Bourgeois: a cut head in a glass cube and a blue ball with head. In this case, the describer has chosen generalisation.

(01:30:06) In the locked room, Vera looks up an art book.

The references to Bourgeois are abundant, although not all of them are explicit. The close-up where Vera is practising yoga, is a clear reference to Bourgeois’ Arch of Hysteria (1992). The drawings on the wall are an imitation of Bourgeois’ women-house and hold great symbolic meaning in the film.[7] Nevertheless, in this example, the describer has also used generalisation to describe the drawings on Vera’s bedroom walls:

(01:31:58) And she keeps writing. I know I am breathing. I know I am breathing. She repeats the sentence hundreds of times. The walls are full of inscriptions, dates and some drawings. They cover the wall to the socket.

Later, she sees the busts on her bedside table:

(01:33:05) On the bedside table there are her busts inspired by Louise Bourgeois.

One of the sentences written by Vera on the wall is the sentence that Bourgeois wrote in her work Precious Liquid (1992): ‘Art is a guarantee of sanity’. But this sentence is not reproduced in the AD script, although it is an essential reference for Vera and allows us to understand that sculpture has provided Vera with a means of escape during her long years of imprisonment. In fact, Pedro Almodóvar thanks the sculptor explicitly at the end of the film: ‘Thanks to Louise Bourgeois whose work has not only moved me but has also contributed to Vera’s salvation. – Pedro Almodóvar.’

The presence of Bourgeois is essential in the film, and has, therefore, been described in the AD. The describer has not reproduced all the intertextual references which appear on the screen. But he has included the name of the artist, the artistic movement to which she belongs (Surrealism) and the relationship between her work and the unconscious on two occasions. Nevertheless, we think that the description of the drawings on the wall of Vera’s bedroom or other elements inspired by Bourgeois (Vera practising yoga, the balls lined with fabric, the flesh tone bodysuit) are relevant to the plot and should have been included in the AD script. It is clear that Bourgeois’ work has a close parallelism with Vera, and this has also been conveyed by the AD script. It seems that the describer has chosen to describe some elements referring to Bourgeois and has dismissed others according to time constraints. The person who listens to the AD will know that Bourgeois’ work is present in the film and can therefore establish the link to Vera (or not), even if its presence is not marked every time it appears on the screen.

However, since many intertextual references are only visual, it is probable that a normal viewer would not be able to identify these elements without any other help, because the work of the French artist is not well-known by the Spanish target audience. Thus, by explicitly naming and adding information, it seems that the visually-impaired have more information about this intertextual reference than the normal viewer, whose understanding of the plot could be therefore better than that of a normal viewer, unless these normal viewers manage to deduce the meanings of the paintings just by seeing and identifying them. A preliminary study carried out on the perception of intertextuality in 46 normal viewers showed that only 4 were able to identify the artist Bourgeois when confronted with her work. No one could name the title of any of her sculptures, except for Maman (1999), a 9 meter tall sculpture that is on display in the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum (Sanz-Moreno in press). These first results may suggest that normal viewers cannot easily recognize the artistic references present in this film, and therefore that the blind or visually impaired have, in fact, more detailed information.  

2.3.3. The books

Books are fundamental in the settings of Almodóvar’s films. They define the characters who read them, they tell us about their destinies, their fears, their hopes, their dreams, their desires and aspirations. The characters have a fetishist relationship with books, they are objects of desire, which identify them and build up their personalities. It is not by chance that Marco Zuluaga in Talk to Her (2002) has the book The Hours by Michael Cunnigham (1998) on his bedside table, while he waits for Benigno, played by Javier Cámara, who is in prison;[8] or that Esteban (Eloy Azorín) asks her mother (Cecilia Roth) for Truman Capote’s Music for Chameleons (1980) as a birthday present in All About My Mother (1999).[9]

The Skin I Live In is no different and books appear five times in the film. The first time, at the beginning of the film, Marilia is preparing Vera’s breakfast. She puts the breakfast tray and some books in a dumbwaiter to be sent up to her. One of the books is Runaway, by the Canadian writer Alice Munro (2004). The describer has retained this detail and has described it, even if the title of the book  cannot be read, unless the image on the screen is frozen. A normal viewer could not manage to read the title or the name of its author. And besides, nothing in the dialogue or the plot allows the audience to guess this information. Nevertheless, the AD insists on the presence of the book three times in 30 seconds:

(00:02:12) She takes the tray with breakfast and the book Runaway by the writer Alice Munro. She goes to the living room. Another two assistants are cleaning. She puts the tray and some more books on the dumbwaiter. Another door of the dumbwaiter. Vera approaches and opens it. She retrieves the breakfast tray, Alice Munro’s book and another flesh tone bodysuit. She puts everything on the sofa and approaches the intercom.

Pedro Almodóvar declared that Alice Munro is one of the best contemporary English writers (2013).[10] Runaway presents some short-stories in which the main character is a woman facing a change in her life, something that also happens to Vera. Apart from that, the title of the book reflects Vera’s only intrinsic goal in her life: to escape from Ledgard.

Later, Robert goes into Vera’s room and realizes that she has tried to kill herself, cutting her veins with the pages of a book, The Orchard Keeper (1965) by Cormac McCarthy. Next to it we can see Blood Meridian (1985) and Cities of the Plain (1998) by the same author. The AD script says:

(00:08:20) [Robert] introduces the key and opens the door. (00:08:26) He looks at the naked young woman on the bed, but she is unconscious. She has cut the veins on her wrists and she also has wounds on her breasts. 

As we can see, the AD script does not mention that Vera has used the book as an instrument with which to end her life. The images show the bloodstained edges of the pages. Books are presented as a double-edged sword as they can be a means of escape for Vera, but also can lead to her death, as she becomes more conscious of the distressing situation in which she is living.

Later, when Doctor Robert Ledgard is in his bedroom and spots Vera on the plasma screen, there is an open book on his table, The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins (1976).[11] The AD script does not mention the book, despite a close-up of the cover. In that moment, Vera is back on camera and appears to be sleeping. Robert opens a cupboard and takes a small box “as large as a book” (as mentioned by the AD script) and goes out of the bedroom. The describer compares the size of the box with a book, and we know that the box contains opium balls and a pipe. Is the describer suggesting the opium-book is a means of escape, and consequently, Vera’s salvation?

As we have seen, the AD only reveals the presence of one of these books, despite the fact that in many cases their titles are clearly visible. Why has the describer decided to name Munro’s book whilst omitting any reference to the books by Dawkins or McCarthy? We could argue that the titles are not legible, and that the describer has therefore decided to use generalization or even omission legitimately. These two strategies make the perception of both blind or visually- impaired and normal viewers equal, as the viewers cannot read the books’ titles. Nevertheless, the audio describer has decided to name the title of Munro’s book, even if it cannot be easily read. We cannot forget that the describer has carried out an evident documentation task when describing paintings or sculptures, and in those cases, he has not hesitated to considerably amplify the information on the screen that the normal viewer has probably not received.   

2.3.4. The silicon mask

While Vicente is still recovering from numerous surgical operations on his body, he wears a silicon mask on his face in a clear reference to the film Les yeux sans visage by the French director Franju (1963). The parallels between the story of the surgeon Genessier and his daughter Christiane with Vera and Ledgard are obvious, especially because of the mask both women have to wear on their faces. The AD chooses to describe the material it is made of, as well as the parts of the face which can still be seen: 

(01:19:53) Vicente’s face in close-up becomes a new face covered by a latex postoperative mask which only allows us to see his lips and eyes.

(01:21:00) The new woman, covered by the latex mask, sits down and puts on the bodysuit.

(01:24:22) Robert’s hands slowly take the latex mask off her face. Robert looks carefully at the new and beautiful woman’s face. Both look at each other. 

It does not seem as though the viewers could easily establish the connection with the French film. Nevertheless, the intertextual reference is there and the description of the mask can help to imagine a more faithful image of what is been shown on the screen and provides a sufficient clue to relate it to Franju’s film... 

3. Conclusions

As we have seen in this article, the intertextuality in The Skin I Live In presents numerous difficulties when producing an AD. The references to paintings, books, and sculptures make up the settings that characterise the characters who live there, and no one can neglect their symbolic meaning. Decoding the meanings of the intertextual elements allows for a deeper comprehension of the film, which presents numerous layers in which Almodóvar has left clues in order for the viewer to understand the characters’ behaviour. Nevertheless, these clues are mostly visual and, therefore, the AD is essential for a visually impaired audience. The describer not only reveals the clues, he explains them, giving information that cannot be deduced from the images and making them easier to understand for a viewer who cannot access the images because of the visual impairment. In this sense, we do not doubt that the AD consumer is going to enjoy it. But, it is not likely that the normal viewer would have a comparable understanding to the one by the visually impaired audience, as we do not consider that the target audience of The Skin I Live In  is familiar enough with the work of Louise Bourgeois or of Alice Munro, to name but a few. Giving more information to the visually-impaired audience than is actually available from the image contradicts the Spanish regulation on AD which states that “the data provided by the image must be respected, without censuring or cutting off presumed excesses nor complementing presumed deficiencies” (AENOR 2005: 8), even if it can contribute to enrich the experience of this audience and compensates for the lack of vision (Sanz-Moreno 2017). If receptors prefer this detailed AD, then a revision of the Spanish regulations on AD should be undertaken.

Moreover, the audio describer has adopted explicitation and addition to describe one painting (Venus Of Urbino) and one book (Runaway); but the other artistic elements have been ignored or referred to using a generalization. Explicitation is not necessarily the most suitable strategy for a blind audience, as it “can become patronising and risks giving away too much information” (Taylor 2015: 52). We cannot know whether this choice is the result of a conscious decision or whether it is arbitrary, as there are some fundamental artistic references that have not been audio described. But, as stated by Neves “the amount of information to be given is decided on the basis of narrative relevance and the time available” (2015: 69) and apparently it is what the audio describer has considered.   

Reception studies carried out in normal viewers and in the blind and visually impaired would allow us to compare both perceptions and confirm this hypothesis: the user of the AD of The Skin I Live In has much more information about intertextual references than an average normal viewer. And this could lead us to analyse another vital issue: the quantity and quality of the information that must be provided to visually impaired audiences, something that still represents a great concern in Audio Description Research. Reception studies will help us achieve the desired balance between providing too much information (therefore making the receptor feel over-protected and overwhelmed) and providing too little data, whereby the receptor would feel neglected.  


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[1] The translations of the Spanish AD regulation UNE 153020 (AENOR, 2005), as well as of Almodóvar’s statements and of the AD script of The Skin I Live In are ours.

[2] For example: Media for all, whose eighth edition will be held in Stockholm in June 2019; ARSAD, Advanced Research Seminar on Audio Description, at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, held in March 2017; AMADIS (Congreso de Accesibilidad a los Medios Audiovisuales para Personas con Discapacidad), whose eighth edition was held in October 2016.

[3] Banderas was known in the 1980s and the 1990s as “chico Almodóvar”, thanks to the films shot with the Spanish director Laberynth of Passions (1982), Matador (1986), Law of Desire (1987), Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990).

[4] In Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (2011), the painting La Baigneuse by Picasso hangs on the wall. Swarkowska and Jankowska consider that the most suitable strategy to audio describe it would be to name the title of the painting as well as the painter and describe the painting itself. But, taking into account the time constraints, they decide to offer a description of the painting, respecting the humour of the scene (2015: 260).

[5] We have just begun research on the reception with both viewers and a blind or visually- impaired audience to confirm this issue.

[6] For a detailed explanation of the use of pictorial works in Almodóvar’s films, see Navarrete Galiano (2012), and in particular for The Skin I Live In, Parés Pulido (2014) and Thibaudeau (2013).

[7] The women-house has been interpreted in different ways: the work consists of bodies of women in which the heads have been replaced by houses: the house as a shelter but also as a prison, as asphyxiation, the women absorbed by home, like Bourgeois (and Vera) were by their memories.

[8] Marco encourages Benigno, who is in prison, not give up, and believes in his innocence. Despite Marco’s efforts and support, Benigno will finally kill himself, just like Virginia Wolf did, and Leonard, her husband, could do nothing to prevent it. Like in The HoursTalk to Her is a story of solitude and existential distress.

[9] Esteban’s mother, played by Cecilia Roth, reads out loud the Preface of Music for Chameleons, which will finally be premonitory: “I started writing when I was eight- out of the blue, uninspired by any example (…). Then one day I started writing, not knowing that I had chained myself for life to a noble but merciless master. When God hands you a gift, he also hands you a whip; and the whip is intended solely for self-flagellation”. With his death, Esteban, like a chameleon, will contribute to the change and adaptation to the new circumstances of his mother and of all the other characters of the film.

[10] In 2013, Almodóvar asked himself in his personal blog: “Is there anyone who does not know that Munro is the best English short-story writer?” In fact, some years later, the director adapted Juliet (2016) based on three short-stories from Runaway (Chance, Soon and Silence).

[11] It’s a work of scientific dissemination about evolution, whose main line of research is that organisms are survival machines for genes.

About the author(s)

As a part-time lecturer, Raquel Sanz Moreno has been teaching Interpreting Techniques and Practice (French- Spanish) at the University of Valencia since 2012. She is also in charge of the courses Documentation for Translators and Information and Communication Technology for Translators. She holds an undergraduate degree in Translation and Interpretation and a PhD in Audiodescription and cultural references from the University of Valencia (Spain). Her research interests include audiovisual translation, intersemiotic translation and accessibility, among others. She works as a specialized translator and interpreter.

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©inTRAlinea & Raquel Sanz-Moreno (2019).
"How to deal with intertextuality in AD? Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In: a case study", inTRAlinea Vol. 21.

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