'It Just Takes One Madman'

By Osborne, Lawrence | Newsweek, October 3, 2011 | Go to article overview

'It Just Takes One Madman'


Osborne, Lawrence, Newsweek


Pedro Almodovar turns the preposterous into the sublime. He says his new thriller, about a surgeon creating his dream woman, isn't farfetched.

On a blank little street in Madrid called the Calle Navacerrada, near a park devoted to Eva Peron, stands the headquarters of El Deseo. "Desire"--it's the perfect name for Pedro Almodovar's production company, the crucible for all his films including Law of Desire, the movie that helped make a star out of a young Spanish actor named Antonio Banderas. Through anonymous blinds one can glimpse an illuminated poster for Almodovar's latest film, La Piel Que Habito ("The Skin I Live In"): it shows the eyes of Banderas and a woman in a flesh-colored mask. Almodovar's tale of a mad surgeon who creates an experimental woman out of transgenic tissue is a thriller that harks back to the German expressionist thrillers of the 1920s, like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the early films of Fritz Lang.

In an upstairs office hung with enormous versions of his movie posters, along with one for All About Eve (a key inspiration for Almodovar), the director sits at his desk with a tray of coffee cups and sheaves of papers. The office has the look of a small library--there are handsome volumes of Robert Mapplethorpe and Dior on the shelves--and the feel of a novelist's study. "I work like one," he admits. "I carry different projects around for years, just like a novelist. I write like a writer, if you see what I mean."

At 62, he has not lost his voluble, boyish electricity. Almodovar is a great talker, but--perhaps surprisingly--he talks without gesticulation or exaggerations. He slips between English and Spanish quite easily, and he likes to chat, charlar, but without too much small talk.

Asked why his new film differs so widely from the French novel upon which it was based--Thierry Jonquet's Mygale, which was published as Tarantula in English--Almodovar says, "It's always that way."

"A book is not a film, and here the idea began to grow and change. I never met Jonquet; he died recently. But his widow met me at Cannes, and she asked me why I had changed the ending. I said, 'Well, actually, I changed everything!'?"

In Almodovar's elaborated version of the story, Dr. Robert Ledgard (Banderas) is a suave, successful Madrid surgeon whose wife committed suicide after being mutilated in a car accident. Years later their daughter, Norma, attends a high-society party with her father. Venturing out into the gardens with other young people who are high on drugs, she is ambiguously sexually assaulted by one of the stoned boys and left unconscious in the woods. When she awakes, she sees her father kneeling over her and assumes that he is the one who assaulted her. She later commits suicide, and her death sparks Ledgard's involvement in a series of bizarre experiments to create the perfect woman using genetically modified skin tissue.

His gorgeous Frankenstein creation, Vera, is played by the intense Elena Anaya. Her fabricated breast, the doctor observes, is as perfect as "a drop of water on glass." "And Elena," the director says, "was so perfect for this part, so fragile and yet so open, so brave. It's an immensely difficult part. I've wanted to work with her for 10 years, actually."

Banderas and Almodovar, meanwhile, have not worked together in 20 years. After making such films as Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and Matador, Banderas pursued a Hollywood career while Almodovar stayed in Madrid and made the films he wanted to make. Small budgets (The Skin I Live In cost 10 million to make) and complete editorial control have enabled Almodovar to avoid the creative fate of so many American directors. "I feel sorry for them sometimes. I could never make my films except on my own terms; there is no other way to do it. The American system doesn't really allow for this freedom, this individuality. Which is ironic, to say the least."

Banderas is a perfect sociopath in the film, calling to mind Bela Lugosi as Dr. …

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