A skin flick ties Banderas to Almodovar once again

It has been 20 years since Spain's finest last worked together. The Oscar-winning director tells James Mottram about the harrowing, Promethean tale that inspired their reunion

We all know all good things come to those who wait. But it feels like Pedro Almodovar has kept us waiting an inordinate time for his new film, The Skin I Live In. It's a decade, to be precise, since he first optioned French-born writer Thierry Jonquet's novel Tarantula.

In that time, he has made Talk to Her, Bad Education, Volver and Broken Embraces – forcing Antonio Banderas, his proposed lead, to do the most waiting of all. It has been more than 20 years since they last worked together, on Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! – making this one of cinema's most anticipated reunions in years.

Translator in tow, Almodovar arrives for our interview dressed in beige trousers and white T-shirt. The skin he lives in is a rich olive-brown colour, while his thick mane has long since seen its black hue eclipsed by shards of grey. With a warm smile in evidence, his belly looks well fed and his cheeks are the sort you'd like to give a friendly tweak to. And maybe I would, had I not just seen The Skin I Live In. A twisted hurt-locker of a film, it's about as far removed from the colour-coded camp-fests of his youth as you could wish to get. Jolly, it is not.

It shows that Almodovar, at 61, is unafraid to venture into bold new territory. Banderas, who has stayed friends with his director during their time apart, noticed it straight away.

"He is more complex now. More serious, maybe. More profound, in certain areas. More minimalist, more precise and more austere. But then the interesting thing that I discovered is that my friend has his engine still pumping big-time. He's not becoming a crowd-pleaser. He's not just accommodating to what the audience expects from him. But he's stretching a little bit more, to the limits."

A modern-day Frankenstein tale, Banderas plays Dr Robert Ledgard, a renowned plastic surgeon and a leading authority on genetic skin transformation and transplants. In his roomy villa he keeps a woman, Vera (Elena Anaya), under lock and key, observing her via video screens as his obsession grows. But it's how he came to encounter Vera that is the crux of this mystery-melodrama. If Banderas's actions feel like a wink to his mental patient in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, transgression and transformation combine in a film where the body horror would make Cronenberg blush. But the film is not, the director says, an all-out attack on the evils of nip/tucks.

"I'm not judging cosmetic surgery as such. If you're trying to present me as some sort of great moralist, I have to say I'm anything but. I just want my characters to come to life. I think cosmetic surgery is a sign of our times. I think that often, when there's abuse, that abuse comes from the very clients themselves. People who end up entering a very vicious circle in search of beauty, and that leads to some quite grotesque extremes. But that really falls under the category of your own self control."

In his mind, at least, Almodovar claims he set out to make a "silent Fritz Lang movie" – perhaps thinking of Lang's 1922 film Dr Mabuse: The Gambler, the story of a criminally minded doctor of psychology.

"But I thought it was too risky. There was enough risk in this movie. And I was a little afraid. I like to take risks myself when I'm making a movie. But you need to have an idea of the risk that you're taking to assess it. But I'm aware of the risks I take in any film. I've always taken risks, I accept that and I'm aware of the consequences."

With the dominant image of Vera covered in "a network of new scars across her body", Almodovar concedes it's impossible to ignore the Frankenstein comparisons. However, he cites Prometheus, the Titan of Greek mythology who stole fire from Zeus and gave it to the mortals (and became the inspiration for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein) as of more interest.

"Prometheus, as an image, is one of a superman – somebody who is very generous, very giving. And somebody who is a great creator in a way."

Almodovar goes to great lengths to explain he's not comparing himself to the Titan. "But there is a part of Prometheus, which I do identify with sometimes. That is when the gods chain him to a rock and condemn him to have his liver eternally consumed by a vulture, and have his entrails constantly regenerating. So there are times I feel that I'm chained up and devoured by our limitations as human beings with what I do. And the other times I feel the vultures are pecking away and devouring at me!"

Is he referring to the manner in which he was branded an enfant terrible in the Eighties for a series of films that blended sexual liberation, outrageous humour, and murderous mayhem? "The press was very scandalised in the Eighties by my movies," he nods. "But it didn't bother me. I was completely spontaneous, then and now. Sometimes, my spontaneity was very outrageous! Now, I think people like to be scandalised. But I never feel like an enfant terrible, though it's a definition that's been with me my whole life."

Whatever the case, after Bad Education (which dealt with his Catholic upbringing) and Volver (taking him back to the La Mancha of his childhood), The Skin I Live In would appear a much more abstract form of autobiography. It's 43 years since he first arrived in Madrid as a 19 year-old, selling used items at the local flea market El Rastro to make ends meet. Back then, he was unable to study film because of his financial situation and the fact that Franco's government had closed the film-making schools. But, after getting a job at a telephone firm, he bought a Super 8 camera. After a series of short films, he didn't make his feature debut until 1980's Pepi, Luci, Bom. It was for his second feature, 1982's Labyrinth of Passion, that he met Banderas.

"I was looking for dark-haired boys. And he was very dark – though in Spain that's very easy! I caught him. After that, I saw him in Madrid and we talked for a while. He remembered that I had seen him. And the first thing I ever said to him was: 'You could play major romantic leads!'" Typically perverse, he cast him as an Arab terrorist. It was, as they say, the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Four more films followed, including 1988's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, the film that got them both noticed internationally.

"I feel very close to Antonio," he says, now. "He was part of my family in the Eighties. He was really like my younger brother. Antonio was perfect... to spread that passion and desire."

'The Skin I Live In' opens on 26 August

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