Monday, 1 August 2011

Pedro Almodóvar/Antonio Banderas — The Skin I Live In

"Anything for the weekend, sir?"

Here's my Pedro Almodóvar and Antonio Banderas feature.

Cover story Sunday Times Culture, July 31 2011

I've Got You Under My Skin

An audience with Pedro Almodóvar was never going to be an orthodox experience. Parked on a gilded sofa in Madrid’s ornate Westin Palace Hotel, the director is talking animatedly about his cinematic influences. “The American underground, John Waters,” he gurgles. “Heheheheh. Veeeeerrrrry dirty.”

Almodóvar’s employment of a translator to bridge his jumps between English and Spanish is lending a comedic stereo effect — akin to that scene in High Heels where Victoria Abril’s TV newscaster confesses on air to a murder while her revelation is relayed by a deaf-signing woman.

His interpreter, a statuesque ex-pat beauty from Newcastle, slightly overglammed for a Sunday morning in a red cocktail dress, would not be out of place in one of the director’s films. Almodóvar’s English is excellent, but he won’t confront the press without her, because, at full throttle, warns his PA beforehand, “Pedro can get a bit carried away.”

Enter Antonio Banderas, who jumps on Almodóvar, kisses him passionately on each cheek and flops next to him. “I trust him. I admire him. I loooooove him,” Banderas intones.

A procession of waiters traipses in, having overdone the drinks order, such that the crockery on the coffee table is in a perpetual state of Mad Hatter rearrangement, causing Almodóvar to relocate his silver Raybans and leather manbag.

With everyone cutting across each other in Gatling gun Castillian and Almodóvar jumping in to expand upon Doña Geordie’s conversions, the chaos is delightfully apposite. “And British pop, Richard Lester, The Beatles and Carnaby Street,” adds Almodóvar. “Heheheheh. Much more clean. Less dirrrrrrty.”

Almodóvar and Banderas new film together, The Skin I Live In, is a landmark one, their first joint outing in 21 years. There was no estrangement. “We have been seeing each other in Los Angeles,” insists Banderas. “I gave him his first Oscar.” “Our friendship has remained the same,” echoes Almodovar. “He is like my younger brother, I call him and Melanie (Griffith) my ‘American family’.”

But it’s the resumption of a partnership that began in 1982 and was was assumed to have had its Adios with 1990’s Tie Me Up Tie Me Down… before Banderas went off to become a Hollywood star and Almodóvar transformed from outré filmmaker to double Academy Award winner.

It seems almost redundant here to point out here that Banderas is a handsome devil, the mere mention of his name apt to make women of a certain age (and some of the men) get a bit silly — usually adding, for good measure, something a bit snippy about his missus.

“The best thing about when he came to work with me, it was exactly the same Antonio as 21 years before,” coos Almodóvar. “The same person — someone who’s really alive, a great sense of humour, absolutely none of those little Hollywood star touches.”

Save for a conspicuous lack of grey, the tanned and sinewy actor dressed in (are you listening laydeez?) a tight white long-sleeved t-shirt and khaki Replay combats, looks little different. Not bad for a man of fifty.  “Yes indeed, indeed,” nods Almodóvar. “Thank you sir,” says Banderas.

Back in the day, Banderas had been Almodóvar’s leading man — or as leading as any man gets in his female dominated universe. Given that their collaborations included Labyrinth Of Passion (Banderas as a gay Arab terrorist), Law Of Desire (Banderas as a psychopathic gay hustler of a film director) and Matador (Banderas as a student toreador and faux serial killer, gayness undetermined), you’d be hard pushed to out-weird what had gone before.

But fans of their couplings can be assured that The Skin I Live In is agreeably twisted, symptomatic of a filmmaker, says Banderas, whose movies — and interviews — can stretch from “Shakespeare” to “Mexican soap opera” during their course.

Along with 1995’s Live Flesh, from the Ruth Rendell story, the film is a rare case of Almodóvar adapting from a book, the French novella, Tarantula, by Thierry Jonquet. Although, he explains “When I started writing the script, it had a life of its own. It was getting more and more baroque in the way that I was developing the idea.”

To even attempt to precis the plot, is to give things away. So, in the interests of nun-like purity (though not the nun played by Penelope Cruz in Almodóvar’s All About My Mother), let’s just say that it entails a widowed plastic surgeon, Dr. Robert Ledgard (Banderas), who seeks to avenge the death of his daughter, driven to insanity after her rape. This comes by kidnapping her assailant for some macabre and experimental comeuppance.

Almodóvar talks about his fascination with transgenesis and artificial skin, which provides the movie’s scientific gloss. Though the hook was a more traditional dramatic theme. “The revenge of the father. I found it very original, very strong and very shocking.” He has accentuated it by throwing a degree of ambiguity around the sexual assault — “an almost rape,” he says, applying the Ken Clarke-o-meter — making Ledgard an outright cold-blooded sadist.

The film has been described as a horror film. Black comedy would seem more on the money. But you can see the gothic influences — Eyes Without A Face, Open Your Eyes, Frankenstein, or more subtly, Rebecca and Vertigo. “There are echoes of all these films,” Almodóvar admits, “but I only realised most of them once the film was finished. In any case, this film is very different from any film made until now, including my own.”

Interestingly both men describe Ledgard as a fascist. From the lips of a Spaniard, this is not a casual epithet. Indeed, Almodóvar and Banderas owe their careers to Franco’s dictatorship, or rather its aftermath, when they were part of La Movida Madrileña, an artistic explosion following decades of repression.

Almodóvar’s films, an outrageous blend of kitsch comedy and melodrama, featuring a gallery of homosexuals, bisexuals, transsexuals, omnisexuals, heterosexuals, nosexuals and pay-for-sexuals was one almighty “up yours”. There are frequent pops at authority still. 2004’s Bad Education was a response to the sexual abuse perpetrated at Almodóvar’s Catholic boarding school.

Almodóvar had begun as a counterculture journalist, then as part of a glam rock comedy act, before picking up a camera — self-taught after the Generalissimo closed down the National School of Cinema. His official debut, 1980’s Pepi Luci Bom, became a cult hit, his troupe of players a tight-knit band. “We did five movies in the 80s but we spent the whole entire time together,” says Banderas. “It was a kind of a family group. We used to go to discos and have lunches...”

(He’s still quite the animal. “Have you seen him party?” asks another actor who worked with him recently. “You should see him dance. One for the ladies.”)

The director got a big leg up with1984’s What Have I Done To Deserve This?, starring Carmen Maura as a desperate housewife. His broader comedy, 1988’s Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown (co-starring Banderas), led to international acclaim.

Ant’n’Ped managed one last hurrah, but there was a parting of the ways. Drooled over by the movers and shakers (including Madonna in her documentary, In Bed With Madonna), Banderas headed West.

Banderas’ retelling of his American adventure — “You can say Hollywood years, heheheh” taunts Almodóvar — is an absolute hoot. Unable to speak a word of English, he sat and nodded politely through meetings with Beverly Hills agents.

Signing on a whim with an underling— “the guy literally taking the coffees to the agent’s offices. He said, ‘Do you want me to represent you in America?’ and I said ‘Sure, whatever’” — he was put up for the musical drama, The Mambo Kings, bagging the part on the condition he learn his lines phonetically.

It led to the role as Tom Hanks lover in Philadelphia. He met his now-wife, Griffith (their affair something of a scandal at the time). He settled. In the days of Old Hollywood Banderas’ name might have been anglicised to its equivalent, the somewhat less exotic Tony Flags. But Señor Flags hit town just as Latin lovers were hot (and with little public perception of his screen past.) It was but a short hop to playing a cartoon cat.

Almodóvar stayed put, as attached to Madrid as Woody Allen used to be with Manhattan (albeit with the occasional excursion, The Skin I Live In is set in nearby Toledo). After his Diane Keaton (Maura) and his Mia Farrow (Abril) came his Penelope Cruz (Penelope Cruz). Not that Almodóvar divides his career into Picasso-esque periods. "As a matter of fact, I do not think much about my older films. … What really moves me are the films I still want to make.."

There seems no doubt that his later works have a greater emotional depth, a certain polish. 1999’s All About My Mother won him an Oscar for Best Foreign film. 2002’s Talk To Her, arguably his best film, a drama woven from the seemingly incompatible subjects of coma patients and ballet… and a tiny man climbing into a vagina… won him an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. The others have been superb — Bad Education, Volver, Broken Embraces.

Money helps. Gone are the days when Almodóvar used to shoot stuff at nights and weekends yanking his cast out of the nightclub. Though it’s all relative. The Skin I Live In cost about a third of George Clooney’s standard salary, Almodóvar reminds.

The cottage ethos continues. His brother Agustín runs their El Deseo film company. House players continue to crop up (like Marisa Paredes here). Even Almodóvar’s PA turns out to be one of his producers.

Banderas praises a director who, even at his age (though no one’s really sure, 61 probably) continues to innovate. “In a world of fast food to see somebody who still has balls to do very complicated dishes.” Though the actor’s acquired thespian “suitcase of tricks” was thrown out by Almodóvar on day one. “He got upset with me at certain points – don’t move your hands so much,” says Banderas. “Somedays you just want to kill yourself… or kill him.”

There are many recurring motifs in Almodóvar’s work — car crashes, hospitals, kidnappings (see Tie Me Up Tie Me Down), familial discord and of course, sexual ambiguity.

There is also transformation. The Skin I Live In, like others, features a character returning to their smalltown radically altered. Almodóvar, metropolitan king of the avant-garde, had strolled out of the plains of La Mancha, the son of an illiterate muleteer (“a poor family, economically talking”).

He laughs at the notion of autobiography. “When I went back (to La Mancha) it was just to open a park in my name.” But he does concede that however you might change outwardly, in essence you remain the same. “You could call it someone’s soul, or spirit, whatever word you want to use. Even science can’t touch that core of a person.”

There are loose plans to do another film together. Banderas, meanwhile, has films coming out including Steven Sodebergh’s Haywire, Black Gold, Spy Kids 4 and, yes, Puss In Boots.

In the bar earlier, Almodóvar had talked about having several scripts on the go but with one yet to ping on “this light” he says, miming a bulb flashing on over his head. I make a joke about the new EU energy-saving ones not responding so quickly to inspiration, but it gets lost in translation.

He will, not, as has been reported be making a film about the Italian 60s pop singer, Mina. “I don’t want to make biopics. It’s not for me,” although confesses he was tempted to do one about Liberace.

Intriguingly, he harbours ambitions to make a film in English. He had tried to get the rights to both The Hours and The Reader. He suspects that his lack of fluency (which is not true) might be prohibitive. More importantly, the source material must demand the story be made in English rather than doing it just for the hell of it.

It may happen. “But not in Hollywood,” he says. “I mean I don’t want to share a decision with so many people that you have in the American production way. I’m too old to learn how to behave in another way.”

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