It's been a long time coming, but Pedro Almodovar has finally teamed up with Antonio Banderas again in a film that will have punters thinking twice about a nip and tuck, writes James Mottram
We all know good things come to those who wait. But it feels like Pedro Almodovar has kept his fans waiting an inordinate time for his new film, The Skin I Live In. It's a decade, to be precise, since he first optioned French-born writer Thierry Jonquet's novel Tarantula.
In that time, he has made Talk to Her, Bad Education, Volver and Broken Embraces - forcing Antonio Banderas, his proposed lead, to do the most waiting of all. It has been more than 20 years since they last worked together, on Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! - making this one of cinema's most anticipated reunions in years.
Translator in tow, Almodovar arrives for our interview dressed in beige trousers and white T-shirt. The skin he lives in is a rich olive-brown colour, while his thick mane has long since seen its black hue eclipsed by shards of grey. With a warm smile in evidence, his belly looks well fed and his cheeks are the sort you'd like to give a friendly tweak to. And maybe I would, had I not just seen The Skin I Live In. A twisted hurt-locker of a film, it's about as far removed from the colour-coded camp-fests of his youth as you could wish to get.
Jolly, it is not.
It shows that Almodovar, at 61, is unafraid to venture into bold new territory. Banderas, who has stayed friends with his director during their time apart, noticed it straight away.
"He is more complex now. More serious, maybe. More profound, in certain areas. More minimalist, more precise and more austere. But then the interesting thing that I discovered is that my friend has his engine still pumping big-time. He's not becoming a crowd-pleaser. He's not just accommodating to what the audience expects from him. But he's stretching a little bit more, to the limits."
A modern-day Frankenstein tale, Banderas plays Dr Robert Ledgard, a renowned plastic surgeon and a leading authority on genetic skin transformation and transplants. In his roomy villa he keeps a woman, Vera (Elena Anaya), under lock and key, observing her via video screens as his obsession grows. But it's how he came to encounter Vera that is the crux of this mystery-melodrama. If Banderas's actions feel like a wink to his mental patient in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, transgression and transformation combine in a film where the body horror would make Cronenberg blush. But the film is not, the director says, an all-out attack on the evils of nip/tucks.
"I'm not judging cosmetic surgery as such. If you're trying to present me as some sort of great moralist, I have to say I'm anything but. I just want my characters to come to life. I think cosmetic surgery is a sign of our times. I think that often, when there's abuse, that abuse comes from the very clients themselves. People end up entering a very vicious circle in search of beauty, and that leads to some quite grotesque extremes. But that really falls under the category of your own self control."
With the dominant image of Vera covered in "a network of new scars across her body", Almodovar concedes it's impossible to ignore the Frankenstein comparisons.
However, he cites Prometheus, the Titan of Greek mythology who stole fire from Zeus and gave it to the mortals (and became the inspiration for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein) as of more interest.
"Prometheus, as an image, is one of a superman - somebody who is very generous, very giving. And somebody who is a great creator in a way."
Almodovar goes to great lengths to explain he's not comparing himself to the Titan. "But there is a part of Prometheus, which I do identify with sometimes. That is when the gods chain him to a rock and condemn him to have his liver eternally consumed by a vulture, and have his entrails constantly regenerating. So there are times I feel that I'm chained up and devoured by our limitations as human beings with what I do. And the other times I feel the vultures are pecking away and devouring at me!"
Is he referring to the manner in which he was branded an enfant terrible in the 80s for a series of films that blended sexual liberation, outrageous humour, and murderous mayhem? "The press was very scandalised in the 80s by my movies," he nods. "But it didn't bother me. I was completely spontaneous, then and now. Sometimes, my spontaneity was very outrageous! Now, I think people like to be scandalised. But I never feel like an enfant terrible, though it's a definition that's been with me my whole life."
Whatever the case, after Bad Education (which dealt with his Catholic upbringing) and Volver (taking him back to the La Mancha of his childhood), The Skin I Live In would appear a much more abstract form of autobiography. It's 43 years since he first arrived in Madrid as a 19-year-old, selling used items at the local flea market El Rastro to make ends meet. Back then, he was unable to study film because of his financial situation and the fact that Franco's government had closed the film-making schools. But, after getting a job at a telephone firm, he bought a Super 8 camera. After a series of short films, he didn't make his feature debut until 1980's Pepi, Luci, Bom. It was for his second feature, 1982's Labyrinth of Passion, that he met Banderas.
"I was looking for dark-haired boys. And he was very dark - though in Spain that's very easy! I caught him. After that, I saw him in Madrid and we talked for a while. He remembered that I had seen him. And the first thing I ever said to him was: 'You could play major romantic leads!"' Typically perverse, he cast him as an Arab terrorist. It was, as they say, the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Four more films followed, including 1988's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, the film that got them both noticed internationally.
"I feel very close to Antonio," he says, now. "He was part of my family in the 80s. He was really like my younger brother. Antonio was perfect... to spread that passion and desire."
It's been 20 years since Antonio Banderas, who started out at age 19 in the films of Pedro Almodovar, has worked with his old friend. It's been nine years since the director cast the actor in his latest film The Skin I Live In as a Dr Frankenstein-like plastic surgeon. Banderas didn't mind, especially as the story reminded him of the transgressive tales the pair told in their early films together.
"Pedro is part of my life and part of my career. It is my sixth movie with him and it was like reproducing the feelings that we used to have when we made Law of Desire and Matador which screened at film festivals leaving people startled as well. They didn't know how to process it.
"But then, with the years, people came to recognise and love his narrative process. People even started calling things Almodovarian, so his style became part of the modern vernacular."
Banderas describes his character Dr Robert Ledgard as "horrible".
"He is an egomaniac and a fascist looking for perfection and looking to be God. But Pedro didn't want to show the monster. That was the main thing that he said to me - that this guy is really dangerous, but it is more effective if we don't actually play it that way, with all the fireworks, as is often the tendency of actors when they see a character like this."
And while he's had plenty of practice, Banderas says that acting in an Almodovar movie is not for the faint-hearted.
"He is unbelievably meticulous. American actors would kill themselves working with Almodovar because he doesn't believe in "method".
"When you are working with him he will tell you exactly how to hold every finger, or 'Don't do that with your eyebrow'. 'What do you mean don't do that with my eyebrow? What am I doing with my eyebrow?' 'Just don't do it, whatever you are doing, just don't do it! Okay, action! That thing you did with the tongue, no, don't do that!'
"So, you have to take all that information and make it natural. It is complex and he is exacting about creating the dream or the idea that he has in his mind."
Who: Pedro Almodovar, occasionally outrageous Spanish director
What: The Skin I Live In
When: Opens at cinemas Thursday
- TimeOut / Independent