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ARTS: CINEMA: Pride and utter perversity

Almodo var is back, with 'Live Flesh', his adaptation of a novel by Ruth Rendell. He eats scones, breaks his English and rants about Anglo- Saxon prurience with Suzi Feay, a long-time fan yellow cheesecloth headwrap spitting at lambourginis
UP TO NOW, Pedro Almodovar has written, as well as directed, all his movies. Who else could dream up his bongo-playing nuns (Dark Habits) gun-toting Jackie Onassis lookalikes (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), nymphomaniacs and confused Arab terrorists (Labyrinth of Passion), escapee rapists (Kika) and murderous housewives (What Have I Done to Deserve This?). Now for the first time he has adapted a novel; though Ruth Rendell's Live Flesh has transmogrified from a gloomy, overcast tale of English psychosis into a full-blooded drama of jealousy, machismo and passion set in Almodvar's beloved Madrid.

"I am not a good adaptator," confesses the director, in his suite in Brown's Hotel in London. "Joking with the words, I could say I'm an inadaptator - inadaptado in Spain means misfit."

For the moment, he's much more interested in the plate between us, filled with what he calls first "scoons" and then "sconnys": "Scones. This is a word I want to learn. This is my favourite part of British culture. In Spain we can get tea, but that cake - the scones - don't exist."

I've met and interviewed Almodovar several times, both here and in Madrid, and today it seems as though his English is deteriorating. This time he's brought an interpreter from El Deseo, his production company, who knows just when to take over with a word or phrase when Almodovar, under pressure to explain himself, bursts into torrents of Spanish.

In Rendell's novel, a suspected rapist, armed with his uncle's service revolver, is pursued through the gardens of west London, finally breaking into a house and holding hostage the young woman he finds inside. Panicking, he shoots and paralyses the hero policeman who crashes through the door, and is perversely consumed with bitterness against the man whose life and spine he has shattered. Ten years later, on his release from jail, he seeks the man out.

On screen, the young man, Victor, is an innocent; he has come to the house of a young woman with whom he had sex the previous week in a club; Elena, a junkie, has forgotten all about him, and is waiting nervously for her dealer. Two police officers arrive, alerted by the shouting; a gun goes off, and after the tragic incident, Elena reforms and marries the injured policeman, while Victor goes to jail.

Why did he change the central character so profoundly? "I didn't want Victor to be a rapist; I didn't want to make a movie with that protagonist." Rape remains a cautious issue for the director. Almodovar was roundly scolded for the protracted rape scene, played for somewhat edgy laughs, in Kika (1993).

"It was more my mood, the story that I wanted to tell about fatality, to put just the opposite - someone completely innocent. It was a bad night for everyone, and everyone lost. But he lost more than the others. For that reason he must be young. He's so naive."

The challenging role of Victor, hardened by his years in jail but still hopeful, optimistic and passionate, is taken by the unknown Liberto Rabal. "The name Rabal is very famous in Spain. Liberto is the grandson of Francisco Rabal, who with Fernando Rey was our most international actor before Antonio Banderas. Liberto had to shoulder a big weight, but I am very glad to discover him. He reminds me a lot of Antonio. I think Antonio is more talented: the most incredible natural capacity that I ever met. Since the first day on Labyrinth of Passion, the first movie he ever made, I was sure this guy could do whatever he wanted. Liberto doesn't have this extraordinary capacity, but he's very talented and he looks as good as Antonio, with the intensity: very masculine but with no ostentation. He has this innocent animality. All these qualities are very good. Now that I don't work with Antonio ..."

Can you afford him now? "I don't think, no. We are talking about doing something together and I say, but Antonio, oye, your salary now, it's the budget of one of my movies in Spain! All of my actors, they came after years so expensive that if I want to make a movie with Carmen Maura, Victoria Abril, Antonio, then ... we can't." He breaks off, eyeing the last scone sadly. "Is for you. I have problems with weight. With this excess, I shouldn't eat."

The macho Javier Bardem, who starred in Bigas Lunas's films Jamn, Jamn and Golden Balls, confines his bull-like frame to a wheelchair for much of the film. A crippled Minotaur, he brings a sense of brooding menace to the role of David, the injured policeman. Bardem trained eight hours a day over two months, and learnt not only how to manipulate his wheelchair, but how to play basketball from it: after his accident, David becomes a sports star. "I saw a programme on TV about the paralympics. It's the same team that appears in the movie. It was not only a moral lesson - it was so cinematic." One of the nice touches is the way the movie stops for as long as it takes David to manoeuvre into his car or house. "That was our decision. In any case, Javier does it so quick, it's incredible. This is a sportsman. Within the handicapped, they are an elite. To discover that world is amazing, because they give you this impression: 'We can do almost anything. We complain about nothing.' At the same time, I didn't want to make him a hero. I wanted to show him with his defeats like everyone ..." "No defeats, no. Defectos: defects," corrects the interpreter.

The third point in the triangle is the ghostly Elena, a spoilt rich kid who turns her life around with charity work and devotion to David until Victor insinuates himself back into her life. She's played by the Italian, Francesca Neri. "Of course in Spain I have actresses of that age, but the guilt complex which is so important for her character - the face of Francesca was wonderful for that. It's a beautiful girl, very beautiful, but with a kind of distance, and this pale skin, like being vampirised by guilt. The feline quality in the eyes reminds me of Jacqueline Bisset and Charlotte Rampling. It's the saddest female character I have ever written. Also the most pale!"

And of course, it's all set in Madrid, and not in Ruth Rendell's grim Acton. "I feel a big responsibility because I meet many foreign people in the streets and they say to me, 'We came to Madrid because of your movies!' I don't know whether they expect to be raped, or drugged, or ..."

Almodvar's own existence is far removed from the strenuously gregarious city life he depicts in his movies. There is no word for "workaholic" in Spanish, but that's clearly what he is. "I'm addicted to work, yeah, I can say that. I realise that also it is a way of escaping from life." The brief biog that accompanies the film notes says: "He writes and directs. And lives, enough at least to be able to invent stories which are alive." "I need to be with a notebook. It's not work; just doing something. On holiday I went with Bibi [Andersen, the statuesque actress from Law of Desire and his regular consort] to the beach and it was very windy and I couldn't read or write. Forget it! After 10 minutes I said, Bibi, what are we going to do now? She said: nothing. I was so bad she took me back to the hotel. Bibi was right: she told me, you have to learn."

The perversity of his earlier work is absent in Live Flesh ("perverso," prompts the interpreter, needlessly); it is perhaps his straightest movie. How does he feel about being described as a gay director? There is a charged silence.

"You know, you don't say, 'a fat movie by Orson Welles'. You never say, 'the heterosexual monarchy of the United Kingdom'. Something that I personally hate absolutely is 'the openly gay director Pedro Almodovar'. I'm not openly anythin'! I'm openly bored about that. I'm openly furious about that. People think this is something flattering. No. I'm not openly gay and of course I'm not a gay director. I'm absolutely male director. Of course there is a gay sensibility, but not only belongs to gay artists. Movies don't have any kind of sexuality. I saw a very bad taste and useless line: 'The first heterosexual film by Greg Araki' - which film's that?"

He smiles with our laughter, calming down a little. "But is not because I want to hide anything, not at all. I can talk to you about whatever, with you personally, about everything you want to talk about. But this is the worst of homophobic expression. I think maybe this is very American. I'm sure they would like to put in the passport - your sexual orientation. But if I'm bisexual, what put? The number of women you make love with? In Spain we never talk about this. It's a sign of bad education. And, in general, we don't hide anything. What I don't like - not don't like, I become furious - is here, or United States, when they just ... [insinuatingly] 'What is the name of your boyfriend?' It's a lack of respect. The Motion Picture Association of America, they ban a movie like Tie Me Up!, which is a romantic story. They prohibit the sexuality, a lovemaking scene between a couple that love each other. But I have to talk to the press about what I do in bed? What are you talking about? For a person like me, who's very free, who's very sincere in my life and in my movies, to go to the US is very unpleasant."

Funny, in all that tirade, he didn't once lapse into Spanish.

! 'Live Flesh' (18) opens on 15 May.