Pedro Almodóvar is blowing air kisses and waving goodbye to Antonio Banderas when I arrive to meet him at a Madrid hotel. Banderas, at 50 and wearing pumps, chinos and a white T-shirt, looks so much more youthful and alive than his psychopathic alter ego in Almodóvar’s new film, The Skin I Live In. He plays Dr Robert Ledgard, a cold, wealthy plastic surgeon who uses his scalpel in the creepiest of fashions to exorcise the demons in his family life. Ledgard’s every move is calculated and deliberate, whereas today Banderas is light on his feet, even throwing me a wave like an old pal as he passes. We’ve never met before.
Meanwhile, Almodóvar looks like a slightly more respectable version of his younger self, the punk, gay, working-class filmmaker from rural La Mancha in central Spain, who in the 1980s shook up Spanish screens with bright, funny, anarchic movies such as What Have I Done to Deserve This? and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. In more recent years, he’s become a full-on titan of world cinema with masterly works like All About My Mother, Talk to Her and Volver. The 61 year old still has a vertiginous thick shock of hair, only now it’s almost entirely grey, and today he’s dressed down in jeans, trainers and a light-blue polo shirt, beneath which there’s a hint of a belly. He’s a bit chubby, but you imagine he’s always been this shape: short and stout. His face and grin are boyish and he smiles and laughs a lot.
Yet Almodóvar still manages to look totally hip, and the big, dark, thick sunglasses he clutches in his hand are a reminder that he is a rare thing: a seriously regarded art-house director who also operates as a pop-cultural icon and celebrity face at fashion shows and art openings – in 2009, French Vogue marked his sixtieth birthday with an 11-page photographic project by Bruce Weber. But it’s his films that give him his reputation. When we think of an Almodóvar film, we think of emotion and style working powerfully and cheekily together with daring storytelling. But it’s hard to separate the man from the work. To talk of ‘A film by Almodóvar’ (even he ditched his first name on credits years ago) is to talk of a personality reflected in cinema, and vice versa.
Charm that keeps 'em coming back for more
‘This is my next feature, here, talking to you,’ says a smiling Almodóvar, gesturing from me to him and back again, as we take a seat in a plush function room, a translator on hand to help with his switches from heavily accented English to Spanish. Does he mean he’s planning a film about a British critic who flies to Madrid one hot, dry July Sunday afternoon to chat about his movies? No such luck. It’s just Pedro’s way of saying I have his full attention. Cinema offers him metaphors for life, and, he says, ‘My life at this moment is being here, talking to you.’ What a charmer. No wonder actors including Banderas, Penélope Cruz, Victoria Abril and Carmen Maura have so often come back for more in the three decades he’s been making films.
It’s more than 20 years since Almodóvar last worked with Banderas. Their last film together was Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! in 1990, in which Banderas did exactly that to a shocked and excited Abril. It was the actor’s fifth film with Almodóvar in nine years, which makes their new film a long-awaited reunion of sorts. The Skin I Live In is a very loose spin on French novelist Thierry Jonquet’s Mygale (Tarantula in English), which Almodóvar has given a thorough going-over so that the film is unmistakably from his pen. He makes it contemporary, moves the action from France to a sleek Spanish villa, adds a strong interest in mothers and sons, investigates ideas of sexual and gender identities, offers references to the late artist Louise Bourgeois and confidently darts back and forth in the story. It’s shocking and mysterious.
The plot is too sensitive to give away, but essentially it’s a tale of an abuse of power prompted by trauma and tragedy. Ledgard (Banderas), the plastic surgeon, has lost his wife and daughter and lives alone with a housekeeper in a villa where he holds captive Vera (Elena Anaya), a gorgeous, small young woman in a tight bodysuit and with perfect skin. Scenes of Ledgard at work, in a hospital and in a private lab, reveal he’s an expert in facial transplants and growing new skin, while flashbacks to six years earlier introduce a storyline involving Ledgard’s daughter, Norma (Blanca Suárez), and a boy, Vicente (Jan Cornet), she meets at a party.
As our knowledge of a perverse web of intrigue increases, so does our discomfort and wonder at some of the film’s more explicit episodes, during which one man’s sense of pleasure and revenge is another man’s living hell. Yet, for all its delicious depravity, The Skin I Live In is unmistakeably the work of a master craftsman, guiding us through tough territory with panache and beauty. Some have tagged it a horror film, but it’s a label over which Almodóvar hesitates. ‘I think you can see some of the horror genre in parts of the film,’ he says, ‘but if you look at the rules governing the category then in the strict sense of the term it’s not a horror film.’
How would Almodóvar feel, I ask him, if I described this new film as sexy and sick? Both, I quickly add, meant very much as compliments. ‘Seeck,’ he chews over, before conferring in Spanish with his interpreter about the exact meaning. ‘No,’ he decides, grinning – ‘I’m not worried about that at all, not with this particular film. I think you could probably even use darker adjectives about this film.
‘It’s funny when you’re the director of a film, and a writer, too, like I am,’ he continues. ‘You’re aware of everything you’re doing in the film. It’s a conscious process. What you’re not so much aware of is what sort of reactions you’re going to get. I didn’t know, when I was making this, that it would be such a hard-hitting film. I’ve heard from people who have seen it that they were very much affected, shaken, by what they saw. So, no, I’m not bothered at all by you saying it’s a sick movie.’
Explore the area outside your comfort zone
Almodóvar is used to shocking people, shaking people out of their comfort zone, while at the same time pleasing them, as the years and his films have progressed, with luscious photography, elegant production design and bold colour schemes (which have softened into calmer, more maudlin territory over the past couple of films). Over time, his movies have developed a slicker, more sombre melodramatic sweep but always there’s something truly transgressive and boldly exploratory about their content. This is the man whose first film, Pepi, Luci, Bom, from 1980, features a scene in which a young woman pees on another as a way of coaxing her out of her mousy shell. And yet Pepi, Luci, Bom, for all its rough edges and cheap technology, was a tender and likeable film, full of love for life and generosity for its characters. Small wonders run up against big outrages in most of Almodóvar’s films.
I suggest to Almodóvar that much of his career has been about bringing together the outrageous and the sublime. ‘Yes, I think you could define it the way you just have,’ he says, mulling the idea over. ‘But all the outrageous things in my films come very naturally to me. I’m not deliberately trying to be outrageous. It’s all part of life, and, in fact, I even try to prompt empathy with my more outrageous characters. For instance, in Talk to Her, I wanted people to feel sorry for and empathy with Benigno [a character who rapes a young woman in a coma].’
It’s hard to think of a director more willing to forgive and understand extreme characters in his films. Almodóvar’s extra-special knack is then to present those same characters in a way that’s powerful and moving way beyond niche audiences. He has asked Banderas to do a few crazy things for him over the years. In 1982 in Labyrinth of Passion he cast him as a young Islamic terrorist. In 1986 in Matador, he directed him as a man who confesses to murders he didn’t commit. And in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, he gave him the part of a released mental patient who kidnaps a stranger. All of which came before Banderas left for Hollywood, a marriage to Melanie Griffith and a recurring voice part as a Latino cat in the Shrek movies.
Friends old and new
Banderas can’t have been too surprised, then, when his old friend and director asked him to play a crazy surgeon in The Skin I Live In? Almodóvar’s response shows how kindly he looks on characters others might dismiss as nutters. ‘But in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, Antonio Banderas’s character is really just a poor lad, isn’t he? He really isn’t very bright, and he kidnaps this girl so he can tie her down and prove that he loves her. He doesn’t want to hurt her, and he frees her, doesn’t he, after not very long? Really it’s a love story about two characters living on the edge of society. There’s a tremendous naivety about his character that gives him his charm.
‘But this character he plays in The Skin I Live In, the doctor, is an out-and-out psychopath,’ he continues. ‘It’s not that he wants to inflict pain, he doesn’t even know what pain is. The way I directed Antonio was different, too. Here, I spent most of my time making sure that he could empty his face physically. I wanted him to be a very inexpressive character. I wanted everyone to understand that this doctor has no feelings at all.’
On his reunion with Banderas: ‘Antonio really made the role, but it was a tremendous task because that character would have been difficult for any actor. The register I was asking him to play as an actor was one that neither of us had sought before. As soon as Antonio came back from the USA, he showed me that he trusted me: he was so generous.’
Almodóvar is full of praise, too, for the film’s other lesser-known star, Elena Anaya, a 35-year-old Spanish actress who impressed critics with her appearance in Julio Medem’s 2001 film Sex and Lucía. Here, her role as Vera, Ledgard’s captive, was originally earmarked for Penélope Cruz. ‘The key to Elena’s acting, to her performance, is that she’s tiny-framed and fragile, particularly compared to the male characters, but still she’s excellent at the physical scenes,’ explains Almodóvar. ‘She’s committed and engaged and can go far when asked to do something physically demanding. Another of her abilities is that she’s able to connect to and bring out her emotions in the same way that Penélope does.’
As our interview draws to a close, I mention Pina Bausch, the German dance choreographer who died two years ago and whose pieces Café Müller and Masurca Fogomark the beginning and end of Almodóvar’s much-loved 2002 film Talk to Her, the parallel stories of two young women in comas and the men in their lives. On the day in 2009 that Bausch died suddenly at 68, Almodóvar described her as a ‘revelation’, who ‘always inspired me’. He tells me that he and Bausch were friends and he’s been too nervous to watch her surviving company perform since her death. He says, too, that he hasn’t been able to bring himself to see Pina, Wim Wenders’s documentary. It would be too painful, he says. Bausch had asked him to make a film about her, which he never did, and his head would be too full of thoughts of her and that unmade work.
Almodóvar has been making feature films for more than 30 years, with several years of shooting short Super-8 films before that. In the 1970s, after moving to Madrid in 1967 at the age of 18, he spent 12 years juggling work as an employee for a national phone company with immersing himself in the city’s countercultural theatre, film and comics scene. I ask him what kind of relationship he has with his own older films. Does he think about or even watch his earlier work?
‘I don’t really have my past films in mind much,’ he says, ‘but this year I had no option but to think about them because I’m working on a huge book that Taschen are doing, that’s going to be about all my previous films. But I don’t normally think about them and I’m afraid if I go on like that I may end up forgetting about them completely.
‘Really, I’m always obsessed with the new films I’m going to write and I have lots of ideas for new films in my head. It’s the new stories and the desire to move ahead and see where those new stories are going to take me that fills my mind.’