Pedro Almodóvar, the portly, 62-year-old mahatma of Spanish cinema, furrows his considerable brow and firmly cups both hands over his pendulous bosom. “For centuries, women have acted like men, and heterosexual men love tits, so why can’t they have them?” he asks, his convex palms gauging the size of breasts he’d comfortably wield. “Not like this,” he says, his hairy, outstretched arms suggesting the cleavage of Jessica Rabbit or a Wagnerian soprano. “More like this.” He moves his hands closer to his chest, deflating his imaginary bust to a solid B cup. “Whether you’re someone who wants to look like a feline or George Clooney, or a white person who wants to look black, identity extends far beyond appearance. It’s something that science can’t touch, and it’s definitely more than the sum of our genitals.”
Identity as it relates to our physical selves strikes at the core of his new thriller, The Skin I Live In, a story that Almodóvar was inspired to tell after reading Thierry Jonquet’s novel, Tarantula, over 10 years ago. As Dr. Robert Ledgard, Antonio Banderas plays a distinguished surgeon who, following the suicide of his wife (who fell into a deep depression after a car accident left her barely recognizable), creates a layer of artificial skin resistant to burns, bites, and cuts. Although he insists he’s only testing his robo-dermis on vermin, Ledgard kidnaps a young woman he christens Vera Cruz (Elena Anaya), who then becomes his unwitting cavia porcellus. Imprisoned in one of the many rooms inside Ledgard’s labyrinthine residence, Vera endures six years in almost total isolation. She spends her days practicing yoga, eating meals sent to her via a dumbwaiter, and reading books, such as Alice Munro’s Runaway, a collection of short stories about escape.
Almodóvar carried the book with him from his home in Madrid to the Peninsula Hotel in Manhattan, where he’ll screen The Skin I Live In as part of the New York Film Festival. Leafing through the paperback, he says, “When you’re a prisoner, running away from society is kind of a dream.” As with most of his films, a fever-dreamlike quality pervades the new one; in addition to the more science-fiction elements of its plot, Almodóvar infuses each scene with the unsettling warmth of his trademark Technicolor palette and a Hitchcockian soundtrack courtesy of his longtime collaborator, Alberto Iglesias. There’s even a brutishly surreal criminal named Zeca (Roberto Álamo), who breaks into Ledgard’s house dressed as a tiger and rapes Vera. “Unlike Vera, Zeca can remove his second skin, but like her, his identity remains constant no matter what he looks like—he’ll always be an animal, regardless of whether or not he’s dressed like one. I chose the tiger because, in my mind, they belong to fantasies and dreams.”
What came to the two-time Oscar winner as a dream manifested in Anaya’s character as quite the opposite. Playing the victim of such malicious brutality took its toll on the 36-year-old actor, who’d worked with her director once before on his 2002 film, Talk to Her. “The rape scenes were really tough,” she says. “Without clothes, especially, the exposure was brutal, but with Pedro I felt very, very comfortable. Every moment with him, through every little movement he asked me to make, I felt at ease just knowing that he was there to take care of me.” When asked to describe the magnitude of the experience in one word, she says, following a considerable pause, “Being directed by him was so... good. I have no words.”
The admiration is mutual. “Elena is amazing because she’s completely open-minded,” Almodóvar says of his new muse. “It’s fascinating to watch her because she grows into herself in the most tense moments. I don’t really know how to describe it, other than to say she becomes somehow bigger. She’s so strong, but she’s incredibly fragile at the same time, which is exactly the balance I needed.” When directing Anaya through some of the film’s more torturous scenes, Almodóvar was careful not to overwhelm her. “You have to be simple with actors because the minute they start thinking about all the layers of their characters, they become crazy. Instead of saying to them, Here’s a tiger attacking you and this is his motivation and he’s a metaphor for this and that and these things, it’s best to just say, This tiger is here and he’s trying to fuck you.”
Almodóvar built his career by crafting strong roles for women in a time when the majority of Hollywood’s female stars were—and still are—often reduced to Prada-obsessed shells of womanhood, relegated to the crowded annals of stereotype that have long plagued the film industry. As a gay man born into a devout Catholic family, he understands the desire to shed one’s skin—which is something Almodóvar did with regularity as part of the Madrilene Movement in post-Franco Spain during the ’70s, when experimental culture and unapologetic hedonism became de rigueur. Instead of entering the priesthood as his family initially hoped he would, Almodóvar spent 12 years as an assistant at Telefónica, Spain’s national phone company.
When he wasn’t working, however, he embraced all manner of projects: he wrote comics, contributed to magazines and newspapers under the pen name Patty Diphusa, and performed as one half of the glam-rock duo, Almodóvar y McNamara. (In the video for their song, “Suck It To Me,” Almodóvar summons his inner Dr. Frank-N- Furter in gold hoop earrings and generous eye makeup, while wriggling onstage next to his Bowie-inspired bandmate, Fabio McNamara.)
Although he never says as much, his embrace of aliases so wholly anathema to the 9-5, white-collar grind did, without question, spark a career that would span five decades and include some of the richest characters ever to appear on film. “We’ve become so accustomed to looking no further than the quotidian lives of those around us,” he says. “But if you dig a bit deeper, you’ll find that these seemingly normal people are filled with secrets and mysteries, many of which will never be fully revealed.”
Artwork: Garrett Pruter