Hollywood is not always kind to actors with foreign accents. It's tough to cross cultures if you're not an action star like Schwarzenegger or Van Damme. Spanish star Antonio Banderas made the move across the pond after a series of movies with Pedro Almodovar, who he thanks for turning him into an international star. Walking up the red steps of the Palais with wife Melanie Griffith for the gala debut of The Skin I Live In, Banderas still looks the part, but truth is he's been making Hollywood movies like Shrek spin-off Puss in Boots, which he promoted here (arriving by water with Salma Hayek at a photocall in a huge pair of floating black boots) and could use a good shot in the arm.
(My flip cam interview with Banderas, coverage of the Skin I Live In press conference and a sampling of Cannes reviews are below.)
Just as Spanish stars Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz seemed liberated by speaking their native tongue in Woody Allen's Vicky Christina Barcelona, so does Banderas in The Skin I Live In, which shows Almodovar back in experimental, transgressive mode, freely adapting over ten years a potboiler novel. Banderas is riveting as a Frankenstein-like psychopathic skin surgeon bent on revenge, who works his skin experiments on his human victim, Vera (Elena Anaya).
It takes a while to figure out the complexities of the plot, which is nothing if not mind-bending (some twists involving Banderas's family tree are strangely irrelevant). Some critics were put off, others impressed--but the movie was overlooked for Cannes competition prizes. Sony Pictures Classics (whose Oscar-nominated Incendies is heading toward a surprise $2 million gross) will release it stateside this November.
At the conference, Almodovar said that he found Banderas to be "the same person, happy, lively, as if a continuation of 20 years ago...What's important to me, is I felt surrounded by people I could trust, like a family. I asked them to do something totally new for them. What I did with each of them had nothing to do with what I had done in the past. There was a certain headiness there. I trusted my actors, what I was able to get so easily. The film is totally new in relation to before."
Banderas praised Almodovar's maturity as a filmmaker: "In terms of cinema, he has moved along, he's more complex. In terms of form, he's much more concentrated. Naturally, I find exactly the same person as if 20 years haven't gone by. It's leaner, more minimalist, he really strips us bare, and puts us in a space where you can give free rein to your creativity. I can't use my usual tricks. When you are in front of camera, you are bare, it creates a new insecurity but creates better films."
He adds: "Coming back to Almodovar is a form of recognition and gratitude. He is in a very important position in my life, he signifies a great deal, he was the beginning of my film career. Working with him again is a kind of continuity in my life, coming back to my own roots and my country, all its strong points, weak points and it's coming back home for me. He gave me an artistic education. It was thanks to these first steps before the camera that made me able to pursue my career. Coming back with Marisa (Paredes)-- we worked together a lot in the past-- all these films have become classics in the Spanish film industry."
Almodovar ditched trying a Fritz Lang-style silent film in favor of a thriller "because that fits in with my life at present. My favorite genre was melodrama, now I am in a thriller period. This kind of film makes it possible to bring together different possibilities, you can touch on other dramas, other types of film. I don't think it's necessary to abide by rules of a certain type of film, musical, thriller, comedy, as you did in the 50s or 60s. The thriller is my favorite kind of film today and I will probably make more such films in future. When I started to think about shooting this film, I thought about films of terror, thrillers of the 40s. What resulted is not just a single genre or type of film. The director is like God, it's wonderful for me to create all this. The character of Antonio is also a creator, he is creating life, a new kind of skin, an organ that enables us to create our identity. His character is an unscrupulous psychopath. I wanted him to have this power; he is an extreme character, he doesn't resemble me in any way. This kind of film is only possible with such a cruel character, played by Antonio."
Banderas adds: "You realize this character has been tormented, but he doesn't show it by gesticulating in front of camera. This inner storm of torment in this psychopathic character is clearly shown. He is incapable of any kind of empathy, he announces to Vincent that he has created a new vagina in his body, as though he had given him prescription for aspirin, he's completely cold. This is the character I had to embody. The audience gradually senses that cruelty, malaise and madness gets hold of everyone."
Of course Almodovar admits that he had in mind Franju's Les Yeux Sans Visages: "In fact a clear precise reference was that film, which I know by heart. The genre of Eyes Without a Face is not the same. Transgenesis is reality now. On the scientific side my brother (who has a co-credit) helped me do research work in the human genome. A lot of experiments have become reality, which was not the case when Franju was working. I have data on transgenesis under strict bioethics laws. Crossing human beings with other species is forbidden, it's used for food industry and fabrics. In Eyes Without a Face that was not the case. It's not sci-fi, because these experiments do exist. In Spain, there is a lab where they experiment on artificial skin. I wanted suspense without gore or blood. I didn't want it to be a gory film where we saw blood flowing all over the place."
Here's a sampling of Cannes reviews: "Seductive Wickedness, Hypnotic Surgery-Porn, Dance of Death & Sex"
Andrew O'Hehir, Salon:
"It's recognizably an Almodóvar film from the first frames,..The Skin I Live In is genre-movie Pedro, Hitchcock-en-español Pedro, a fair bit icier and less emotional than the female-centric melodramas he's made recently with Penélope Cruz…this is one of Almodóvar's most cleverly plotted films; there was considerable oohing and ahhing -- along with some well-placed laughs -- in the Lumière as the full dimensions of Ledgard's diabolical scheme were laid bare. It's less a film you'll fall in love with than a film you'll tell your friends they absolutely must see, and that should be enough to make it a hit around the world."
Stephanie Zacharek, Movieline:
"The movie’s erotic charge isn’t the straight-up kind; it’s really more of a queasy frisson, with several sequences involving mildly icky (but not particularly graphic) surgical procedures. Almodóvar is no longer, of course, the young bad boy, but The Skin I Live In proves he’s still got lots of disreputability — and craziness — in him. It’s a pleasure to see Banderas in an Almodóvar film once again: As Robert, his grim little half-smile is sexy in a 'Come here! Get away from me!' way. He’s fully in tune with the picture’s sleek, seductive wickedness."
Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian:
"I can only say that it kept me gripped from first to last. The sheer muscular confidence of Almodóvar's film-making language gives it force, and co-exists with a dancer's elegance and grace. Without this, the story could look strained and farcical. Instead, its bizarre passions are compelling. Almodóvar brings something hypnotic to the surgery-porn aesthetic of his operating theatre of cruelty: the latex, the scrubs, the cold steel, the exquisite yet appalling contrast between wounds and young flesh. It is twisted and mad, and its choreography and self-possession are superb."
Eric Kohn, indieWIRE:
"Almodóvar takes a long time revealing the mystery, the outcome doesn’t justify the build-up. Hitchcock would have turned this material into a credible thriller and Cronenberg might emphasize its visceral qualities, but Almodóvar never brings any single ingredient into focus…Still, the director does string together a strangely appealing atmosphere. It’s one that will be familiar to his fans for its extreme melodramatic overstatement and surrealistic twists brought to life with intentionally ludicrous delivery."
Kirk Honeycutt, THR:
"Only someone as talented as Almodóvar could have mixed such elements without blowing up an entire movie…While Almodóvar is clearly rummaging through old films and film genres that by his own admission include Buñuel, Hitchcock, Lang and Franju as well as Hammer horror and Dario Argento kitsch, he mostly is going after the theme of identity. As the old saying goes, beauty is only skin deep, to which Almodóvar adds that skin can only encase one’s identity or soul. For the skin can change, the soul cannot."
Justin Chang, Variety:
"Much as he did with Ruth Rendell's Live Flesh, Almodovar has taken an ice-cold psychological thriller, penned by a novelist of far less humanistic temperament, and performed some stylistic surgery of his own, adding broad comic relief, overripe melodrama, outrageous asides and zesty girl-power uplift. The big reveal, when it arrives, is pure catnip for the helmer, enabling another of his madcap"
James Rocchi, ThePlaylist:
"The Skin I Live In is an unsettling dance of thanatos and eros, death and sex…There’s something poisonous in “The Skin I Live In”—you have to wonder if it’s an unparalleled example of misogyny or an unparalleled refutation of it, if Almodovar’s embracing the pulp and pop melodrama of the material or mocking it—and something in it lingers even when you try and shake it. Almodóvar’s film may seem thin at first glance, but it’s exactly as thin as the skin we wear between the outer world and the blood in our bodies—and just as uniquely beautiful and distinctively imperfect."
[Almodóvar (left) and Banderas promote The Skin I Live in at Cannes. Photograph: Stephane Cardinale/ People Avenue/Corbis.]