Together Again: Almodóvar, Banderas Reveal New Bag of Tricks for 'Skin I Live In'
It’s common for critics to describe one movie by comparing it to another, as if, unable to accept something new on its own terms, they must fall back on whatever pre-existing standard is most convenient. It is a practice that seems to rankle filmmakers, who usually prefer to treat their ideas as immaculate conceptions rather than share the credit with peers.
It is startling, then, that Pedro Almodóvar, the celebrated Spanish auteur whose grotesque drama The Skin I Live In is now playing at the Embarcadero Center Cinema and the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, is so quick to liken his latest to recent offerings by Terrence Malick and Danish provocateur Lars von Trier.
“I think my film, like Malick’s The Tree of Life and von Trier’s Melancholia, looks at the next step humanity might take, and it looks apocalyptic – not from a science-fiction standpoint, but from a human one,” says Almodóvar, 62, who often begins his answers in deliberate, broken English before losing patience and returning to his native tongue.
“Malick looks at family and loss with a capital ‘L’ from an almost spiritual perspective, and Melancholia is much more literal, about the actual end of the world. My film is about transgenesis and the limitations of humanity. We’ve reach an ethical boundary that science dares not cross over. But we’re still just one step from that line.”
The director envisions a time, close at hand, when man will rival God as a creator. Skin takes that notion to an admittedly perverse extreme, one that Almodóvar calls “ugly, ugly, ugly,” though he stops short of classifying the movie as horror, and beseeches reporters to show similar restraint.
Almodóvar doesn’t object to characterizations of Skin as one of his darkest films to date – if anything, he wearily concedes the point. It was for this reason he believed the time was right, after an amicable 20-year separation, to reconnect with frequent collaborator and close friend Antonio Banderas, who plays a disturbed surgeon in the director's latest.
“The world has changed for the worse,” he says. “So has my life. As time has gone on, I’ve become more mature, and my movies darker. I don’t want fans of the genre to think I’ve made a horror film. This isn’t The Human Centipede. At the same time I didn’t want to make Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown again.
“The time was right for Antonio and I to do something different. He was ready to get back in the mud. He has that intensity, and he’s older now but still handsome. He’s a ladies man. And he doesn’t look like a psycho – this was key. He could exist in society without drawing attention to himself, and you’d never know he was a psycho unless you were his victim.”
Almodóvar first proposed the reunion to his leading man 10 years ago, after he bought the rights to French crime writer Thierry Jonquet’s 1995 novel Tarantula. (“The book is terrible,” he says. “But it gave me ideas.”) Banderas was agreeable, then received a script – six years later. The actor admits that working with his old friend was stressful at times, but that he welcomed the challenge.
“When I go to work, I don’t think I am going to a camping trip,” says Banderas, 51. “Laura Linney said to me, ‘Antonio, when you are feeling very comfortable, you are doing nothing. You are just repeating a formula that you know works for you, or that the audience might expect from you, but you’re not creating anything new.’ Creation comes from a place that is very painful.
“You have to take the backpack that is your life, the familiar bag of tricks, and empty it out and jump into something different. That is exactly what Pedro pushes you to do, always. Even with himself, he doesn’t want to do something he has done before. When he called me after 20 years, I figured he wanted a little bit of Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! or maybe some Law of Desire. He said, ‘No – if I have to reinvent myself, you have to reinvent yourself, too.’”
That said, don’t expect Almodóvar to abandon the racy, lighthearted comedies that elevated him to international prominence in the ’80s. As much as he’s lost some of his youthful optimism, a deep-rooted playfulness survives. “I want my fans to know that I am not going to sink into complete darkness,” he says.
“I may not make Women on the Verge again, but I would like to do something like it, and soon – a comedy. Ironically, making The Skin I Live In made me realize that my sense of humor is still intact.”
The Skin I Live In is now playing at the Embarcadero Center Cinema and the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas. For tickets and showtimes, visit them online.