Interview

Adam Woodward

Illustration

Alec Doherty

Pedro Almodóvar: Anatomy of Desire

The legendary Spanish filmmaker throws open the doors of his Madrid work space to the hungry eyes of LWLies.

A cool, steady breeze carries a perfume of fresh bread and jamón from a nearby pastelería up a slumbering Madrid backstreet to the front door of El Deseo. It’s a cloudy day in June, and the mirrored rows of plain apartment buildings that hem this suburban vein are passive in the dull light. The glass and steel-knit exterior of Pedro Almodóvar’s production company headquarters is modern but teasingly inconspicuous, starving you for the sensual banquet that awaits.

As if spiting the unseasonable weather, inside El Deseo is a kaleidoscopic metropolis of colour and light. Posters of the writer/director’s films dress the walls like family portraits while pot plants sway in the misty emissions of desktop dehumidifiers. The place has an infectious, harmonious energy about it.

For all the material opulence of his art deco office space, however, Almodóvar himself cuts an unassuming figure. He’s 62 in September – almost exactly one month after The Skin I Live In is released – but a shocked silver bouffant is all that distinguishes him today from the quiet mule-driver’s son who rose from impoverished surroundings to lead ‘La Movida’, the cultural renaissance that transformed Spain during the 1980s.

Yet what’s most striking on first impression is that, 32 years and 18 films into his career, Spain’s most decorated working filmmaker meets questions about the shaping of his artistic identity – about growing up in La Mancha, about the women in his films and the mother who would become a thematic cornerstone, about challenging the mores of post-Franco Spain, about faith and sexuality – with such sparkling enthusiasm.

“La Mancha, you have to understand, was a terribly harsh, austere place to live in back then. It was all about pure survival in post-war Spain, which was a period that went on and on, lasting about 20 to 25 years until the mid ’60s when economic development finally took hold. It was a really bleak period in our history.

“The people who made an impression on me then were the female figures,” he reflects. “My mother, the female neighbours, they were the ones who were capable, the ones who were the strugglers and the fighters. And in fact they were the ones that lifted up the country; they were the ones that allowed Spain to survive through all of the hardships of that post-Civil War period. They were the ones that had to be very crafty and imaginative, always having to invent some new way of subsisting.

“La Mancha at the time was a very, very conservative part of the country to live in. Very chauvinistic, as well, very male-dominated in its attitudes. But men never realised that it was actually the women who were running the household; they were the ones in charge.” He continues, alluding to the formative impact of this collective matriarchal muscle: “I think that came through in the films that I made because it was part of my own natural makeup. I was surrounded by all these women and they were the ones that really made me.”

Almodóvar has remained doggedly loyal to his roots. The rare occasions on which he’s strayed from his provincial pulse have been followed by ceremonious, largely triumphant, returns – to the village, to the women and the actresses that have inspired him and in turn been elevated by him. Trace back from his most recent autobiographical outing, 2006’s Volver (literally meaning ‘to come back’), to his delectably kitsch 1980 debut Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls Like Mom and you’ll see the pattern.

Whether revisiting people and places, recycling themes or losing himself in the wilds of his youth, Almodóvar has long been an habitual filmmaker. Consistency is the key to his critical and commercial success, not to mention his prolonged independence. Now, however, he’s broken tradition by developing a borrowed story. Thierry Jonquet’s ‘Tarantula’ tells of a nefarious plastic surgeon who keeps his lover under lock and key in his luxurious Le Vésinet chateau. It’s pacy and robust, ripe for big screen adaptation. A twisting, snarling revenge thriller that’s disquietingly seductive in its narrative ugliness.

Almodóvar picked up ‘Tarantula’ nearly 10 years ago, read it, then discarded it. His first and only previous adaptation, 1997’s Live Flesh, had taken its toll both physically and mentally, only remedied by the euphoric reception to All About My Mother – the film that finally won Almodóvar the acknowledgment of the Cannes jury and US Academy – two years later. But was this calculated procrastination or a more straightforward case of hesitation? “The best way to make an adaptation is to read it once and then forget it,” he asserts, “it will come back to you when it is necessary.”

This may seem like an unorthodox approach, but the personality of Jonquet’s prose was always fated to yield to Almodóvar’s vision. “It’s much more difficult for me to make an adaptation because I think very freely. I’m glad we shot the movie, but the writing process was awful. When I wrote the script there were moments that I saw many, many complications within the plot and I actually found myself fighting against the novel. It’s true that these types of novels can be very fun to read, but when you look at it with a view to adapting, you discover many things that don’t work.”

Despite the numerous tweaks, Almodóvar has kept the core set-up of ‘Tarantula’ intact, meaning that The Skin I Live In runs against the grain by featuring an alpha male as its primary character. Antonio Banderas is shrewdly cast as Robert, the scalpel-happy antagonist, but what prompted Almodóvar to reunite with his former male muse 21 years after Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!? “Whenever you work with an actor or actress and it works very well then you always want to go back and work with them again, and he’s like part of my artistic family,” replies Almodóvar.

“It was the moment to do it because of the character,” he continues. “One of [Antonio’s] characteristics is he’s incredibly skilful; particularly with his hands. If you think about the character he’s a man who’s very skilful; he’s a man who’s transforming people’s bodies and Antonio is very skilful. When he made Zorro, he had a very old trainer – the same trainer that Errol Flynn had – and he said that Antonio was the best actor that he had met. He knew what to do with a sword; he was the best, very physically agile.”

Whether suturing cuts of genetically tailored skin, splicing DNA or coiling wire around the infantile limbs of a bonsai tree, Robert’s delicate, precise touch is in equal parts chilling and mesmeric. But there’s more to this reunion than a steady grip. “I really wanted Robert, even though he is evil, to look really good. I wanted to have someone very suave and dapper. And Antonio is still very attractive. Okay, he’s knocking 50, but he still looks really great; he looks normal in the character he plays. It was time to go back and offer him a role again, and I was lucky that it was the same time that he’d decided that he wanted to come back and do another film in Spain, in Spanish.”

As well as the opportunity to team up with an old friend, the character of Robert enabled Almodóvar to broaden his horizons and explore new ground; namely science-fiction, a genre alien in his catalogue of fiery romance and domestic melodrama. Though ostensibly a Frankenstein body horror, The Skin I Live In is underpinned by real science. In an early scene we see Robert grafting a patchwork of prosthetic skin in a Kubrickian laboratory, deep in the bowels of his Toledo mansion (where the action has been relocated). At this point we know nothing of his sinister intent. Almodóvar is simply setting the scene; relishing every measured pinch of a pipette, every Petri dish stain, hoping to catch the birth of some genetic miracle. With the conversation turning to transgenesis, Almodóvar’s eyes widen.

“Right now transgenesis, this genetic therapy, is being used in practically everything – apart from in human beings,” he explains. “Although people are aware that it could be used, it could be something that could be so helpful in getting rid of all these illnesses, to help with cancer patients. But there’s a massive moral question mark over therapies like this because if we actually started using it for human beings then we will be able to decide exactly how future human beings will be; what their children will be like. We’ll be able to pick their characteristics and I think once that happens then that will take us into a whole new area.

“If you think about history, all throughout history human beings have suffered from disasters – normally caused by people who are just off their heads, absolutely crazy people. Just imagine Hitler, what he would do if he had the power to use something like transgenesis and to be able to create a world made to measure to his ideals.” Almodóvar shivers at the thought, composes himself, and gets deeper. “If that ever starts to happen then where will the existence of God be? What about Creation? Transgenesis will almost wipe them away completely. I don’t know to what extent the code of conduct that exists now in the way people who perform bioethics can stop this happening, but I think science will move forward.

“Even if people have reservations now about the direction it will go in, I think it will carry on and maybe in 50, 60, 70 years time people will start to use these therapies and then God and Creation will disappear from the whole picture.” But what of his own beliefs? Does Almodóvar live in fear of transgenesis, or is he ready to embrace it? “It’s a really delicate matter. If transgenesis is being used for good, for these so-called miracle children that can be healthy because they are able to get transplants from members of their family, then it’s really something that should be fundamental for treating fatal illnesses. But I’m so afraid that people will not use it properly, that there’s a possibility that people will design made-to-measure children. I don’t think we should be doing that now.

“On the other hand, it’s a very attractive idea to think that we may be moving into a future without religion. Not just Catholicism; what I mean is we’d have a religion-free world. In other words, no more of the negative connotations that religions have in the world today. I think we’re all the product of chance. Once the life-giving cell is discovered, everything that’s perpetuated through religion will disappear completely. I think we’re on the brink of the dawn of a new type of mankind.”

The air around us is now charged. Almodóvar has just set out his stall and shared his most intimate political and philosophical views with startling candidness. These facets of his personality are ordinarily veiled by the rich idiosyncratic lustre of his films, or else instilled in subtle metaphors and disguised rhetoric. But that’s not to say he is shy about expressing them off-camera.

Indeed, he has a reputation in Spain for showing his vitriolic disdain for many of the country’s foremost political figures of the past three decades. He heavily criticised José María Aznar over the former leader’s foreign and cultural policies – culminating in a public apology in 2004 for comments he made about the behaviour of Aznar’s Partido Popular following the Madrid bombings on March 11.

The cine elite has also felt Almodóvar’s scorn. In 1985 he attacked the Cannes selectors for, as he saw it, their blatant snobbery towards Spanish cinema. Perhaps it’s no surprise that it took him the best part of 20 years to pick up his first Palme d’Or nomination (he’s now a regular fixture at Cannes; Volver, Broken Embraces and The Skin I Live In have all screened in competition). It’s no coincidence that it has been Almodóvar’s most recent films that have exalted him as an auteur of transcontinental appeal, however – The Skin I Live In is his most ambitious film in years.

And yet there’s an insecurity obscured by this effortless masterclass in filmic composition, with Almodóvar admitting that butterflies still gather when the time comes to call ‘acción!’ on a new project. “When I start shooting a new film I never feel that I’m really able to go ahead and get through it. This is film number 18 – I should feel confident and comfortable with what I’m doing but you never have that certainty when you start. I don’t have that certainty when I start a film because a film is a living being itself, it has a life of itself, and it’s full of other people as well.

“Those people can also influence the direction that the film moves in and you have to be constantly keeping tabs and making sure you’re in control of the film in case it’s been led elsewhere. I think [François] Truffaut summed it up really well: he said it was like being on a runaway train because the brakes have failed and the director is the only one who can stop that train going off the tracks. That’s how it feels sometimes. How’s it going to turn out? You just don’t know.

“What I do know is I’m going to give it my all,” he says emphatically. “I put my whole heart and soul into a film, 24 hours a day. I completely devote my life to making that film and that should give you some confidence about the way things are going to turn out. The other thing that I’m absolutely certain about is I still feel passion for filmmaking; I still feel the same passion as I did when I made film number one.”

That Almodóvar was an anarchic extrovert who exploited cinema as a means of provoking social change. He’s softer, more strategic now. The feminine intuition that gave his early Super 8 shorts and unreleased 1978 feature Folle… folle… fólleme Tim! such potent flavour has diluted over time. The subjects and characters that fascinate him most – family, love, power, rapists, prostitutes, transsexuals, psychopaths and victims – are still there, just less assertive, less palpably grotesque. But while Almodóvar dismisses the notion that age is a tourniquet for creativity, have the margins of his passion shifted?

“I’m still working with the same freedom that I’ve always worked with and the same passion, but passion when you’re more mature is completely different to when you’re young. When you’re young you’re thoughtless and you’re carefree and passion can be something you can embrace, like when you fall in love. Now that I’m older I’m aware of the passion that I feel. If you’re 25 and you fall in love with someone, you just go ahead and take it and run with it. When you’re older you still feel that passion, that love, but you’re weighed down by the pressure of all the uncertainty around it. Adult passions are not the same at all.”

This self-awareness has unquestionably fortified Almodóvar’s filmmaking ideology, yet he still describes each film he makes as a ‘learning curve’; a means of compiling his myriad ideas and inspirations into a cohesive form that’s anchored by an insatiable lust for knowledge. As our discussion continues down this self-reflexive avenue, Almodóvar skims over The Skin I Live In’s influences in tangents. Given the time, you get the sense he’d happily deconstruct every scene.

Georges Franju’s 1960 Eyes Without a Face and Don Siegel’s original 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers are offered as more direct points of reference, while Alfred Hitchcock and Luis Buñuel season the mix. Nods to underground comics (Almodóvar is, after all, a transmedia master: he cut his teeth with the experimental theatre group Los Goliardos while penning articles for counterculture magazines and later mainstream periodicals such as El País under the pseudonym ‘Patty Diphusa’), Cold War thrillers and silent film noirs (“I really wanted to make something along the lines of a Fritz Lang black-and-white movie”) follow. There are doubtless many others.

These influences, by Almodóvar’s own admission, have not always been transparent in his work. Yet a final panorama of his office reveals a man of extensive taste – books on Paul Verhoeven and Michael Mann proudly intersperse hardback spines etched with ‘Maruja Mallo’, ‘Miquel Barceló‘, and other more obvious local dignitaries. His films may chime with a Celto-Hispanic language all of their own, but his devotion to cinema extends far beyond the contours of La Mancha.

Still, for the moment Almodóvar seems wholly content at home. And why not? This unpretentious inner-city sanctuary has nurtured his imagination since 1986 and it looks set to stoke his creative passion for many years to come. No wonder he named it El Deseo: it means ‘desire’.

Published 23 Nov 2011

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