A skin-flick ties Banderas to Almodóvar yet again

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Interview with Pedro Almodóvar

We all know all good things come to those who wait. But it feels like Pedro Almodóvar 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, Almodóvar arrives for our interview dressed in beige trousers and a 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 Almodóvar, 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.

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 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 David Cronenberg blush. But the film is not an all-out attack on the evils of nip/tucks.

"I'm not judging cosmetic surgery as such," the director says. "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, Almodóvar 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."

James Mottram

'The Skin I Live In' is out on Friday