MIAMI — “The Skin I Live In” (“La piel que habito”), the 18th film from writer-director Pedro Almodovar, is a radical departure for the celebrated Spanish filmmaker – his first foray into a disturbing, hair-raising breed of psychological horror. Based on the novel Mygale by Thierry Jonquet (published in the United States as “Tarantula”), the movie centers on the bizarre experiment being carried out by Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), a plastic surgeon who has been trying to create a stronger kind of skin since his wife was horribly burned in a car accident 12 years earlier.
When the film opens, the doctor has finally achieved success, and he’s testing his artificial skin on a young woman, Vera (Elena Anaya), whom he imprisons in his remote estate with the help of his faithful housekeeper (Marisa Paredes). Emotionally cooler and more restrained than Almodovar’s usually flamboyant style, “The Skin I Live In” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, where one specific scene resulted in several walkouts — and was celebrated with a five-minute standing ovation when the end credits rolled.
The movie will no doubt be greeted with a similarly divided reaction by the public — especially longtime Almodovar fans looking for another fix of the heaving, passionate melodrama that has become his trademark. “The Skin I Live In” also marks a reunion between Almodovar and Banderas, who starred in many of films that brought the director international acclaim throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s (“Matador,” “Law of Desire,” “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!”).
Banderas says Almodovar first spoke to him about the project at Cannes in 2002, saying he had optioned the film rights to Jonquet’s novel and wanted the actor to star in the film. Two years ago, Almodovar finally called to say he was sending Banderas a script.
“I read it and loved it,” Banderas said from Los Angeles. “The movie has a superficial connection with the horror genre, sure. But to me, this story is really a metaphor about the artistic creation — about Pedro’s relationship to art and cinema, to his connection with actors and to the creation of self identity. Working with him again was a fantastic experience. When you have a certain chemistry with a director, it’s best not to try to rationalize it too much, because you run the risk of losing it. Pedro doesn’t let you rely on old tricks you’ve learned from experience. He wants you to reinvent yourself. He told me ‘Antonio, I didn’t call you to do the things we already did in the 1980s. I called you to try something different.’ I had really missed the acidic, deliciously sweet pleasure of working with the director I most admire, respect and love.”
Almodovar recently spoke from New York about reuniting with Banderas, the major influences on “The Skin I Live In” and the biggest challenges in making this strange, unforgettable movie.
Q. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about “The Skin I Live In” since I saw it. I’ve been describing it to people as your first horror movie. Would you agree with that label?
A: First, I am very happy to hear you haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, because that’s the greatest compliment you can give a movie — that it stays and lives with you long after you’ve seen it. The majority of films today are aimed for a younger audience, and most of them don’t leave much of an impression.
As far as the horror movie thing goes: I myself am reluctant to label it that way. You have to be careful, because to hardcore horror fans, this will seem like a very strange movie, and I don’t want to disappoint people. But in essence, yes, it is a horror film. There is a 20-minute sequence in the middle of the movie that definitely belongs to that genre — the revenge of a mad doctor that is so terrible that even though the film later segues into a melodrama and a thriller, that sequence remains in your mind and colors the rest of the film.
Q. You use a lot of restraint in terms of what you show, considering how much potential there was in this material for lots of gore.
A: I purposely tried to avoid all the gory trappings of the horror genre and spill as little blood as possible. The worst things in the film all happen off-screen. This movie, to me, was a kind of creative rebirth. That’s how I felt when we were making it. I wanted to make a genre movie in my own manner – to discover it in my own way. I also wanted to make a very austere and sober movie. Because the story is so extreme, I didn’t want anything to distract you from the main plot. I realized the less you see, the more powerful it is. You don’t need to use buckets of blood and drape everything in shadows. That restraint to me was new, because I’m a baroque artist and my normal tendencies are to go in the opposite direction and exaggerate everything.
Q. This is a story about a mad doctor who is trying to physically transform someone into a perfect copy of his dead wife. Thematically, it reminded me of two movies: Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” and the French horror movie “Eyes Without a Face.”
A: The main influence was definitely “Eyes Without a Face.” I had seen that movie as a teenager, loved it, and then watched it again five years ago and it still had the same effect on me. The mad doctor is almost a film genre unto itself, and Antonio’s character most strongly resembles the doctor from “Eyes” — this father who kidnaps young women and takes off the skin from their faces to reconstruct his daughter’s face.
As far as “Vertigo” goes, you’re always going to be quoting Hitchcock if you’re telling the story of a man creating a new woman in the image of another dead woman. To me Hitchcock was the great director of cinema. He made immensely commercial movies that were also intensely personal. And “Vertigo” is an absolute masterpiece and a very essential film within Hitchcock’s canon. It’s a tremendously romantic film and is the godmother of so many movies that have been made since.
Q. Antonio said “The Skin I Live In” is also a metaphor for the artistic creation. Film directors are essentially playing God when they make a movie, because they’re creating their own universe.
A: That’s absolutely correct. In “Vertigo,” when James Stewart tries to transform Kim Novak by changing her hair style and buying her a new wardrobe, he’s basically creating the woman of his dreams. In a way, he’s doing exactly what a director does when he’s working with an actress to create a character. It reminds me of working with Penelope Cruz deciding how she would wear her hair, trying on wigs and different dresses, until we got what I wanted.
Q. The structure of this film is different than any of your previous movies. The story initially seems so simple, with only three main characters. By the end, it’s still a simple story, but it has incredibly complex subtexts about gender, sexuality and self-identity.
A: The most critical challenge with this film was to get a handle on the story, because it is extremely complicated, but you had to make it simple and accessible. I wanted to create a narrative structure where, in the first hour, we meet these three characters living in this house that is protected by bars, like a prison. During that first hour, the viewer also has a lot of unanswered questions about what is going on. How did Vera get there? What does the doctor plan to do with her after his experiment is complete?
Then in the second hour, the movie starts to reveal its secrets and begins to answer all those questions. And some of those answers are terrible. I was very proud of building this construction that is non-linear but ultimately answers all your questions. When you’re going to tell a story as dark, difficult and extreme as this one, you need to use all the tools at your disposal and you have to make sure there are no loose ends or plot holes anywhere. I also hope people will gasp when they gradually understand what is really going on here.
Q. I know exactly the scene you are talking about. I didn’t gasp, but I was so surprised that I covered my mouth with my hand, as if I had just seen a horrible car accident. I totally did not see that coming.
A: (laughs) That makes me very happy. To be able to catch the audience by surprise is the ultimate pleasure. You should see the movie again. The first time you watch it, there are so many twists in the plot and you don’t know where the story is going. People have told me they enjoyed it even more the second time, because you pick up on all the little details.
Q. Antonio’s performance in this film is unlike any he’s given before. His character is a psychopath, but he has justification for the things he does. You want to hate him, but you can’t, and part of that is because Antonio is innately sympathetic.
A: Antonio and I hadn’t worked together in 21 years, but my memories of him were all terrific. I really missed him and wanted to work with him again, but I just didn’t know when. When I finished this script, I was thinking about someone of Antonio’s age but very handsome and attractive — someone who didn’t look like a psychopath. So it was a perfect role for him, and he was excited about coming back to Spain and working in his native language again.
No one played the male characters I wrote in the 1980s better than him. But I didn’t want to repeat what we had done before. I wanted to drain Antonio’s face of all expression and emotion, which is difficult for an actor to do. But his disposition was exactly the same as it used to be, and he gave me the confidence to push forward with this strange movie. It was a great reunion — not just about reconnecting with an actor who is very dear to me and important to my career, but also reconnecting with a friend. In the 1980s, Antonio was like my little brother. We went out every night and stayed out late. Madrid was a total party town back then and we celebrated every day. And even though we’ve always stayed in touch, working together on this film has rekindled that spirit of brotherhood. We just don’t go out and party anymore like we used to. We’re too old for that now.