Pedro Almodovar -The Skin I Live In
Reunited with Antonio Banderas for film that blends genres and crosses formal boundaries
Former enfant terrible Pedro Almodovar has created a film that blends genres and crosses formal boundaries, writes Stephen Applebaum
Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In (La Piel que Habito) arrived at May’s Cannes Film Festival on a wave of expectation. Not only had the Spanish auteur behind such classics as Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, All About My Mother and the Oscar-winning Talk to Her, made a film which, on paper, looked like a horror film, but he had reunited with his old leading man, Antonio Banderas, for the first time in 20 years, to do it. The result was one of the most stylish, surprising, and memorably weird films of the festival.
Thankfully less complicated and more gleefully perverse than the filmmaker’s previous outing, Broken Embraces, starring Almodovar muse Penelope Cruz, this loose adaptation of Thierry Jonquet’s novel Tarantula turns out actually to be a thriller, albeit not a pure one. In fact it’s not a pure anything. With its central story about a crazed doctor (Banderas), who exacts a terrible revenge on behalf of his daughter and the beautiful woman (Elena Anaya, from Talk to Her) he keeps locked-up in a monitored room for use as a guinea pig in artificial-skin experiments, the film – as is Almodovar’s habit – reflects a magpie approach to genre.
Even the 61-year-old (former) enfant terrible cannot decide what he has made. ‘I don’t know how to define the movie,’ he admits. What The Skin I Live In definitely isn’t, in his mind, is a horror movie. Promoted that way it would leave audiences disappointed, he claims, ‘because I didn’t try to frighten people. I try to go in to your mind with an image that can horrify you, but it’s inside you. So I didn’t want blood. I didn’t want any scary moment. But the whole thing together should be scary in a subliminal way.’
Genre blending is actually nothing new for Almodovar. In the same way as gender and sexuality have always been fluid in his films, so the films themselves have been somewhat amorphous. In this case the form is a perfect metaphorical fit for the story’s evocation of Frankenstein. He didn’t think of the Mary Shelley classic when he was working on the script, over a number of years, but now he says ‘it’s impossible not to’. Ultimately, though: ‘This is a movie about sexual identity, about surviving, and also about an abuse of power that you can understand at every level. It can be a metaphor for everything … So you can watch the movie in many ways, but not looking at it like a typical horror movie, because it’s not.’
His refusal to be contained within formal boundaries – and the frequent presence in his films of characters whose transgressive/taboo behaviour is normalised in the director’s cinematic world – is, arguably, rooted in the fact that he started making films during the cultural revolution that burst from Madrid after the death of Franco in 1975. Following the release of his debut feature, Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras del mention, in 1980, Almodovar became one of the leading voices of the movement known internationally as La Movida. Openly gay, his work symbolised the freedom of the New Spain, and, in some ways, the triumph of the hitherto other.
From the beginning, he was interested in the ‘moral autonomy’ of his characters, because ‘it was the most important theme in my life,’ he says. ‘And I think that that freedom is still one of the elements of my movies.’
The new freedom in Spain found a locus in his work in, among other things, the theme of transexuality and tranvestism. It recurs yet again, powerfully, in The Skin I Live In. But more than simply repeating himself, Almodovar is using transexuality in a completely new way. Here, rather than a statement of liberation, it has become a weapon of oppression.
‘Transexuals, I think, when they take the step of becoming what they feel they are inside, are defying God; they are reaffirming their own identity,’ he says. However, this isn’t what is happening in In The Skin I Live In; something else is going on. Almodovar has taken what he believes is a widely-held dream of seeing oneself in the skin of the opposite sex, and turned it into something dark, violent, and nightmarish. Banderas’s surgeon character, Robert Ledgard, is not a stand-in for the director, as some have suggested, although he wields power and control – with medical science and a scalpel rather than a megaphone – but he might just, conceivably, be informed by the ghost of Franco. To say more would ruin the film’s most mind-boggling conceit.
Suffice to say, Ledgard has reworked the body of his captive female using toughened skin created by combining human and pig genes, through a process called transgenesis. Almodovar thought he was going down the route of science fiction when he started writing the script. However, advances in genetic science in the intervening years have, he believes, turned fiction into fact. He is both thrilled by and wary of transgenesis’ potential applications.
On the one hand, ‘you have the capability – and this is the good side – to eliminate all deadly diseases,’ he avers. ‘But you’ll also have an absolute control over the person to be born, over that person’s identity, and you can determine how that person will be.’ For someone who has spent his entire creative life asserting his own identity and helping to define a modern post-fascist Spanish identity in his work, this is clearly a disturbing thought.
Even so, he seems excited by its potential to bring down religions and religious institutions, including, presumably, the Catholic church that he turned his back on years ago. ‘What will become of all the religions that are founded on an idea of worshipping a god who created humanity?’ he ask rhetorically. ‘What will happen to all the religious culture that surrounds those belief systems?’ He smiles. ‘They will be wiped out in one go! I would love to be around to see it, but I don’t think I will live that long.’
If time has seen science change, it appears that Almodovar’s reunion with Banderas was like returning to the past, when they collaborated on films as young men in Spain. Sure, Banderas has been leading a very different life in Los Angeles, with a wife and children, while Almodovar has stayed in Madrid, where he moved to from the country at the end of the 60s. But when the director laid down the condition that the actor must put himself in the same position that he always had when they worked together, Banderas did his best to oblige.
‘He had to forget that he was living 20 years with big success in the United States, because what I wanted was the same Antonio of 20 years ago. And I have to say, he was very generous. He called me Little Pedro, and said, “Just tell me what you want to do and I will absolutely try to do it.” He put himself in my hands and that’s what I needed. So I’m very happy.’
Despite Banderas’ darkly charismatic and complex performance, The Skin I Live In, puzzlingly, failed to pick up any awards in Cannes. It was, though, one of the outstanding films of this year’s vintage edition, and ranks amongst the most entertaining works of Almodovar’s career. Sublimely odd and sexy, it is a must-see.
The Skin I Live In is on selected release from Fri 26 August.