When we first laid our eyes upon Pedro Almodóvar's "The Skin I Live In" at Cannes, we called it a film that "snaps between bright glittering glamour and dark, doomed horror," and emerges largely triumphant, "uniquely beautiful and distinctively imperfect." The reception for Almodóvar's latest in the Big Apple has been similarly apprehensive and appreciative; the audience's reaction at last Tuesday's press screening was a testament to the polarizing nature of the film. Almodóvar and stars Antonio Banderas and Elena Anaya were present with a translator in tow, and the conversation was by turns amusing and laid-back, touching on themes and concepts native to the story. While our own Jen Vineyard turned in an excellent piece digging deep into the specifics of the production, this time most of the questions were addressed to Almodóvar, who fielded them with ease, occasionally utilizing the translator for particularly verbose answers.
The conference got off to a lively start with one question that's been increasingly leveled at the film since its conception -- Almodóvar's adaptation of the Thierry Jonquet novel “Mygale,” also known as “Tarantula,” has been deemed a major departure for the director. Addressing this concern while also speaking about his tendency not to analyze his films, Almodóvar said, "For me, I got the impression that [the film was] completely, not completely, but quite, new. In this movie, I approach one genre that I didn’t before: the horror movie. I don’t mean this is a horror movie, but there is a part inside, in the middle of the movie, 20 minutes, that really belongs to that genre. That was completely new for me. I mixed genres like always, but I think I took it here in a completely different way than before. In my former movies, I was supporting these people that they had to struggle to become what they really are. The identity theme here is treated like a punishment. I hope I will surprise myself and I will surprise you with the next movie. Even the themes were familiar to me, but on the whole I was much more scared than ever.”
Certainly those who've seen "The Skin I Live In" can attest to the fact that it toys with concepts, familiar to Almodóvar's work, of gender, sex and the permanently blurred line between men and women. Addressing the difference between the genders, the director admitted that it exists, "but I can’t explain it to you. This movie talks about that, talks about the identity, one of the ideas that I was trying to say is that identity is not something that can really be just so simply manipulated. It really exists beyond plastic surgery and beyond gender identity, but with that there is a difference between the masculine and the feminine. The identity, the soul, the spirit, whatever you want to call, is something inaccessible, is something incorporeal." He also related an anecdote about "a friend of a friend" whose wife is a linguist and whose daughter prefers to be referred to as "it" and "they" in attempt at gender freedom -- a contradiction to her mother, whose career involves the study of words.
Another oddity that figures significantly in the film is the humor Almodóvar mines from the frequently tragic absurdity on screen. “In this movie, I try to fight against my sense of humor, because I ask myself to do it, to be the most austere I can be, I think it’s always good to have humor in any genre," he said, adding, "Almost every sequence, not just in my movie, but every sequence in life, humor can be present. It depends how you feel, it depends on how distant you can be, and it depends on how much pain you suffer, but the humor is present in the most awful situations in real life." Tipping his hat to detractors who'd deem 'Skin' far removed from real life, Almodóvar said, "This example is very extreme, I know, I realize that, I wanted not to underline anything that could be gory, and not too much funny. In those areas in which one strives hardest to survive, it’s easiest in those moments to find aspects of humor.”
Wrapping up, an audience member invoked "Frankenstein" and "Pygmalion," asking whether these classic tales were conscious inspirations. “I can’t say really that was taken consciously, but in fact was part of a deep cultural pool of resonances that I have," said Almodóvar. "Yes, they’re there of course, but it’s really a whole sort of history of the idea of the scientist that’s trying to create a new being. So, yes, 'Frankenstein,' yes, 'Pygmalion,' 'Vertigo,' 'Prometheus.' I didn’t think about them consciously, but I think the spirits of culture would arrive on the set every day to say hello. But also, it was the theme of creation – in this case, he was trying to recreate the same human that he loved.”
"The Skin I Live In" opens this weekend in New York and Los Angeles and will make its way across the country in the following weeks.
[Top photo by courtesy of UPI /Laura Cavanaugh]