Love, sex, intelligence

Victoria Abril is playful, unafraid, impervious; an emblematic actress for post-Franco Spain. John Lyttle shared a sofa

A minute ago, Victoria Abril was at the other end of the sofa, red of hair, and reassuringly upright. She was talking about how acting is a primal release, "a necessary, how you say it, insane, no, madness, yes?", about how she "makes movies to dream awake" and how she can't "imagine how people are the same person all their lives".

Right this moment her trained dancer's body is as close as a blade or your money back. She dips, swivels, twists and turns. She has the face of a clown or the face of a child; it's difficult to decide. Huge, brown, baby eyes shine as she gazes from below (her head is about level with my chest - how did it get there?) and pleads, her Spanish/ French/ oddly Belgian accent askew: can she smoke? Would I mind? A "horrible habit", she knows, but she must, OK?

Assent, of course, is superfluous. Victoria Abril has been "smoking" since she flew into the room.

"Smoking" is Abril's most noted asset: "Ah, you ask me about sex. Sex, always sex, why I'm taking off the clothes. Why not? I am not ashamed of my body. It is muscle and bone and skin." She slaps her stomach, her thighs. "The ballet. I practise. My body is my instrument." And it carries a fine tune, too. But no, no questions about the sex and the taking off of the clothes. That implies that Abril indulges in serious (as in seriously shallow) huff and puff, the sort best left to the stern maidens of contemporary American cinema. Though famed for her flesh, Abril couldn't carry off, say, the Basic Instinct crotch shot. Her comic timing would render the spectacle delicious rather than daring, and besides, she simply hasn't the sense of sin or sinning (or vulgarity) required. Abril exhales sensually yet nonchalantly, not innocent exactly, but natural. As natural as a child, who has no concept of right or wrong to transgress against. Her every performance declares that passion has its own prankish, impervious logic, that pleasure is of itself, separate and sealed - and demented. Abril accepts her fate, however tragic, however silly. And, somehow, her yielding, every bit as much as her need to take control, seems an act of female strength, not of womanly weakness; an essential, Hollywood movie-ish contradiction at the core of her screen persona that directors obsessively dissect, exploit and refashion in tense, modern terms. Either way, she's unrepressed, uncensored, unafraid - which makes her the perfect symbol for post-Franco Spanish cinema.

Think of her porno queen in Pedro Almodovar's Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down, handcuffed and humiliated, finally embracing the mysteries of amour fou (the Almodovar title that sums up Abril's modus operandi exactly is of a film she actually doesn't star in: Law of Desire). Think again of her widow in Vincente Aranda's Lovers, exploiting her young lodger carnally and financially, until the dreadful knowledge that she's as much his prisoner as he is hers drives her to a crime passionnel. And think now of her betrayed middle-class wife and mother, turning with carelessly disguised abandon to the cropped charms of butch lesbian Josiane Balasko in Balasko's latest film Gazon Maudit (French Twist). Freed by love, liberated by lust, Abril's witty transformation from harried married to hot number is not only a tour de force, it also, very precisely, delivers French masculinity a stinging slap. Small wonder it earnt cause celebre status on its native soil last year, as well as igniting an unexpected fashion clumsily dubbed "la lesbomania".

Abril laughs. It's deep, throaty, familiar - the same rolling bark she greets her unfaithful husband's evasions with in the gaudy mother-daughter melodrama High Heels: "Lesbomania! That's funny." A waiter has found an ashtray. She drags on her cigarette fiercely. Gazon Maudit then. She made the movie because she's known Balasko for years, they'd kept promising that "one day we would work together" and she was taken by Balasko's avowed determination to see-saw between acceptance and rejection of gender and fixed sexual orientation, eventually detonating both. (Abril took her director at her word about this determination - she didn't see the script until the first day of shooting.)

"Gender. Is that how you say it? Gender? Gazon Maudit is beyond gender. The film talks about lesbians, about homosexuality in men, heterosexuality, bisexuality. One is not valued over the other. Why should one be valued over the other? It is life. Love can be, can grow, love is. It has no borders. There are all kinds of hearts, all kinds of stages. What happens to my character, Loli, could happen to any woman. Who knows? What I know is that Loli is the happiest woman that I have ever played."

Abril's favoured form is comedy with a point (it would be - wit and attack are her particular gifts). "I like films that treat important things with humour." Hence the alliance with Almodovar, though she's appeared in a mere three of his movies to a hefty six for Aranda, who discovered her in Paris and gave her her first part in 1976's Cambio de Sexo (Sex Change). "I was 15. I went to an audition." She almost shrugs. "It was casually... casual, very casual. It was to earn money to study ballet. Then I made another film and another. Acting came naturally to me. Acting was easy. Dancing was so hard, so painful. Acting became my new vocation." She points out that, by rights, she could have shone in five of Almodovar's productions, only she refused What Have I Done to Deserve This? "He wanted me to play a whore. I'd just played a whore in Mexico and I don't like to repeat." She also turned down a role in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, to the fast-rising director's amazement. "It was a minor part," Abril explains, casually, casual, very casual. "I said, it isn't enough, Pedro. I don't want a quickie - with you, I want all night long. I'll wait."

The wait lasted a full three years. Then came Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down, controversy, feminist and right-wing backlash over the bondage scenes and the full glare of international attention. Abril prefers "international attention" to the term "stardom". "Stars? Stars are not very interesting. Blah. The star system makes you alone. No one talks to you. They talk to your assistants. You are not accessible. Real life retreats. Alone it is impossible to live, to work, to make something genuine - you do not get to feel the... how do I say? The electric current."

Abril knows what she is speaking about. Her quickie with Hollywood receives the full blast of her blunt charm. "It was a movie called Jimmy Hollywood. The director, Barry Levinson, approached me with a script when I was making Kika with Almodovar. I said to him, this character is a stereotype, not a prototype, but I like the material about three losers in Hollywood, agents wanting their 10 per cent, about the cost of fame. He said he would rewrite and I said yes.

"I have nothing to tell you about Hollywood except that it was the most boring three months in my life. Terrible. I spent 10 hours in a trailer every day, an animal in a cage. So slow! The technical crew is not accessible, the creative crew is not accessible. Ideas are not shared. It was like prison." Abril says even her body language changed as she shrunk into herself. "I'm glad the role was clear in my mind because my body, my instrument, didn't feel anything and I tell you" - with startling speed she loudly, brutally, slams her open palm down on the coffee table in front of her - "I make movies to feel. Hollywood is a word for a big machine that makes money." She stubs out her cigarette, offers the pack, tosses it on the sofa. Her body language is working fine now. She searches through her jacket for matches, mumbling, "I will never do it again."

Her anger might seem excessive coming from someone who says her children and the man she loves are her most important concerns and who confesses, with a "so-what?" tone, that she is no cineaste. "I saw only a few movies as a child. I do not regret it. And I seldom see films today, especially if I am working because I am worried I will see something I like and I will steal it. You understand? I take from life. I do not want to be contaminated by fiction but by reality, by life."

Abril pauses. The silence comes as a shock, because she has been talking - near babbling - non-stop. "But movie-making I love. A new skin, the chance to say and do things I would not do or say in ordinary life."

She inhales, exhales, wreathes that permanently amused face in fog: "I cannot do without it. Movie-making saves me a lot of money on psychoanalysis."

n 'Gazon Maudit' is released in the UK on 1 March

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