पेद्रो अलमोदोवार

द टेलीग्राफ में पेद्रो अलमोदोवार की नई फिल्‍म 'द स्किन आई लिव इन' के सिलसिले में डेविड ग्रिटेन ने यह प्रोफाइल और बातचीत लिखी है। पेद्रो अलमोदोवार के प्रशंसकों और उनके बारे में कम या नहीं जानने वालों के लिए मैं इसे वहां से कट-पेस्‍ट कर रहा हूं।

Pedro Almodóvar interview for The Skin I Live In

Over three decades, Pedro Almodóvar has almost single-handedly brought Spain’s film industry to world attention. He talks about his latest release.

My visit to the filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar in Madrid earlier this summer coincided with a turbulent week for Spain. In Barcelona, police and demonstrators engaged in violent clashes outside the Catalan regional parliament. In Valencia, thousands took to the streets to protest against politicians 'selling out' to corporate and banking interests. In Madrid itself, young members of 15-M, a peaceful protest movement disenchanted with all politicians and the two-party system, massed outside the home of an elderly man to prevent a bank from repossessing his home.

Would Almodóvar be commenting publicly about the discontent sweeping Spain? He shot me a baleful look and recalled that he had voiced his opinions about 15-M back in May, at the Cannes Film Festival. 'I said I was all for it, that these young people would teach the politicians a lesson. They'd point out their mistakes and tell them how to put those mistakes right. Unfortunately, because I'm a public figure, whenever I stand up and make that sort of statement, half the country hates me for it. It's horrible. I get crucified. But I can't keep quiet. I have to say what I think.'

Even now, at 61, Almodóvar can divide popular opinion in Spain whenever he opens his mouth in public. Openly gay and a man of the left, he is still remembered with a shudder by older, conservative Spaniards as the creator of a string of emotional, exuberant, scandalous taboo-busters –What Have I Done to Deserve This?, Matador, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!,High Heels – in the 1980s and early 1990s. These films were correctly perceived as a deliberate rebuke to the sullen cult of Spanish machismo and to General Franco's long, oppressive rule (which ended with his death in 1975). Those days are long gone, yet the media still hounds him for his thoughts. Once regarded as a punkish rebel, he has become a venerable sage. Almodóvar now occupies a unique position in Spanish life. He is by far the country's best-known filmmaker. Indeed, no major nation in the world has one director who enjoys such dominance over his native industry.

For such a famous, influential figure, Almodóvar maintains a low profile in his daily life. I met him at his production company, El Deseo, in which his brother Agustín has been his partner and producer since 1986. El Deseo (it means 'desire') feels far removed from the bustle of central Madrid; it is situated on a narrow street in a sleepy suburb close to Las Ventas, the city's giant bullring.

From outside, this anonymous block offers no hint of the business conducted there. But inside, it is utterly different: a ground-floor open-plan office, in modishly industrial style. Posters of his films – All About My Mother, Volver, The Skin I Live in – hang from its walls. On the floor above, overlooked by a poster of Bette Davis in All About Eve, Almodóvar greeted me smilingly, dressed casually in a blue check shirt, jeans and cream slip-ons without socks. He is rotund, with a shock of grey hair that flies away in all directions, and a one-day stubble. With sad brown eyes, his default expression is plaintive, but when he flashes his broad smile his entire face lights up. He speaks competent English, but in conversation he gets carried away and switches to long explanations in Spanish; using lightning shorthand, his British translator Claire Godfrey calmly keeps up.

Almodóvar has written and directed 18 films. They are united by subtle parallels with his own life, his penchant for melodrama and complex narratives, and his gift for writing terrific roles for mature women. Whatever it is he does, he is doing something right: he is the planet's most famous and popular filmmaker working in a non-English language. 'Fortunately, my market is the world,' he said. 'I'm happy about that. It's unique in Spanish cinema, because people [abroad] usually don't go to see Spanish films.' He is at a point where his fame renders his first name redundant: the poster of his new film, The Skin I Live in, announces it simply as 'a film by Almodóvar'.

He has the unlikely knack, too, of turning Spanish actors into global movie stars. After appearing in Live Flesh (1997) and All About My Mother(1999), Penélope Cruz could embark on a lucrative, if not always admired Hollywood career. Javier Bardem had a small part in High Heels (1991), but a major one in Live Flesh that established his international profile. Antonio Banderas goes back even further with Almodóvar, who cast him inLabyrinth of Passion (1982), then in Law of Desire (1987), and gave him his big break in the Oscar-nominated black comedy Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988).

Banderas, now 50, has returned to Almodóvar's fold for The Skin I Live in, with a sinister yet seductive performance, his best in years. He plays Ledgard, a plastic surgeon whose wife died, having been horribly burnt in a car crash. Holed up in his mansion, where he has a laboratory, he sets about creating a new kind of skin, sensitive to touch, but a shield against burns and other dangers.

Ledgard has a human guinea pig: Vera (Elena Anaya), a beautiful, enigmatic, passive woman whom he keeps prisoner, shielded from the world in an upstairs room, and experiments upon with his patented skin. The plot, with a secret twist, involves a typical grab-bag of Almodóvar motifs: identity, desire, an attempted rape, gender-switching, murder, family ties and revenge.

The film is loosely based on Thierry Jonquet's French novella Mygale(Tarantula). Almodóvar giggled when I called The Skin I Live in an 'unfaithful adaptation', for Mygale is a potboiler – overwrought, indifferently plotted, almost laughable in its eagerness to shock. The younger Pedro, the punkish bad boy of the 1980s, might have embraced its excesses; but the mature Almodóvar concedes reluctantly that he found the book 'gratuitous'.

Thus, while retaining its essential story, he toned it down considerably. 'I decided it was more interesting for the film as a whole for the rape [in the book] not to be fulfilled, not to take place,' he said. He also excised Ledgard's more sadistic acts of vengeance on Vera. It feels most like a horror film, though Almodóvar swiftly qualified: 'Certainly a lot of people who have seen it were completely shaken. But it's not really a horror film like those produced in the States now. There's no blood or gore in it at all.' He shrugged. 'Maybe it's just a horror movie my way.'

Still, by his own admission the film is a departure for Almodóvar. 'Whenever I've shot my previous films, I've felt phantoms of my own cinema past and personal past hovering over me. They accompanied me through those films. But this time I felt completely on my own. For the first time this film did not go hand-in-hand with my memories. The tone is different as well. It's very austere.'

He sees a political dimension to the film, which it probably helps to be Spanish to comprehend. 'It's about the abuse of power. I think a lot about governments that abuse positions of power, using something else to defend the decisions they take.'

Only afterwards did it occur to me that this comment chimed with one of his most controversial public outbursts: in 2004, straight after the terrorist bombings of Madrid trains that killed 191 people, he wondered aloud about rumours that the conservative Popular Party was trying to make political capital out of the outrages. He received hate mail as a result – just as he did in May, when he spoke out in Cannes.

Banderas and Anaya accompanied him to Cannes, and Banderas touchingly paid tribute to his mentor. Working again with Almodóvar was, he said, 'a form of recognition and gratitude. He's in a very important position in my life. He signifies a great deal. He was the beginning of my film career. He gave me an artistic education.'

Elena Anaya was equally effusive. She had a minor part in his film Talk to Her (2002), but now seemed dazed to be the latest actress to benefit from his talent for writing for women. 'So often you just get offered roles as someone's wife or love interest,' she told me. 'It's bull. We women have a lot of things to say, in fiction and in life. I think Pedro understands all sorts of women, and gives them an importance few directors ever do.' It would be no surprise if Anaya, 36 and fluent in English, became a global star like Cruz, Bardem and Banderas. She views her role as Vera as a gift. 'Pedro's an icon to me. He breaks boundaries and we follow him. He's valiente, brave. In Spain before him, it wasn't possible to show certain things on film. But he showed them to this country.'

Pedro Almodóvar was born far from Madrid in a village of 5,000 people called Calzada de Calatrava, in La Mancha, a flat, rural region of Spain that he describes as 'backward, almost 19th century'. Growing up, he recalls, he was raised mainly by female relations. 'The men were out working in the fields.' These women, strong, forthright and superstitious, inspired his 2006 film Volver (it means 'return'), a love letter to La Mancha. It starts with an indelibly lovely image: black-clad widows sweeping leaves from their husbands' graves.

A film fan from the age of nine – 'I would come back from movies and retell their stories to my two sisters' – Almodóvar headed for Madrid when he was 16, hoping he might find some way of getting into the movie business. He sold used items in a flea market, then worked for a spell for the national phone company. Franco had closed down Spain's film schools, so he saved up for a Super 8 camera and began making his own short films. When Franco died, Almodóvar was in the right place at the right time. 'Two years after his death, there was nightlife in Madrid again.' He became part of La Movida, a counter-culture movement dedicated to celebrating Spain's new democracy and stamping on Franco's legacy.

He became half of a parody glam-rock duo, Almodóvar and McNamara, and took to the stage in drag. In 1980 his film career started in earnest with the release of the kitschy, ultra-low-budget Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls, shot at weekends by a crew working for nothing. He was on his way.

He blazed this provocative trail for more than a decade before exploring more sombre, mature material in what he calls his 'trio of transitional films':The Flower of My Secret (1995) starring Marisa Paredes as a bestselling romantic novelist in the throes of a midlife crisis, Live Flesh and All About My Mother. Live Flesh, his 'unfaithful adaptation' of Ruth Rendell's psychological thriller, in his hands becomes a meditation on Spain's emergence from the Franco years to become a functioning democracy. All About My Mother is a self-consciously theatrical story, with homages to Hollywood's post-war 'women's pictures', about a grieving mother who sets out to find the father of her dead son, and stumbles on a curious assortment of female friends: a pregnant nun, a lesbian actress and a transvestite. 'It deals specifically with women who help each other and naturally have solidarity with each other,' Almodóvar told me at the time. It also proved his ability to write rich roles for actresses; he has done it for Carmen Maura, Victoria Abril, Marisa Paredes (for whom he created a role in The Skin I Live in that was not in the original book), and of course Cruz.All About My Mother sealed his global reputation.

For years, a striking aspect of his films has been how beautiful they are to look at. He seems most comfortable with interior scenes; typically his camera hovers lovingly over upscale domestic objects, decor and furniture. The effect is both hyperreal and dreamlike. The veteran cinematographer José Luis Alcaine, who has lit five of them, thinks they offer 'a very particular immersion, almost like a visit to a parallel world'. Over the years Almodóvar has favoured a vivid palette, though for the quasi-Gothic tone ofThe Skin I Live in he asked Alcaine for 'a density, glow and darkness'.

Alcaine told me Almodóvar still likes bright colours. 'But they don't explode on the screen and don't seem to dominate the image as before. I think he no longer sees the world around us with the same optimism, and that the future awaiting us is not at all hopeful, as it was in the 1980s.'

How does Almodóvar achieve the look of his films? It's in the details, he says. 'My directors of photography light my films, but the colours of the sets, furnishings, clothes, hairstyles – that's me. Everything that's in front of the camera, I bring you. I work through intuition, like a painter with a canvas, building it up. All the lights, colours, sets, clothes – they represent elements in the narrative, the story I'm telling. Of course I want my films to look really good, but every single element is chosen for a reason. It's telling something in the story.' He shrugged. 'That may not always be clear for the average spectator. It's more for me.'

His obsessive detail extends to eliciting precise performances from actors. The cast of The Skin I Live in rehearsed for two whole months, a long time for a film. Anaya recalled, 'He's a really good communicator. He works on every little detail and gives you all his ideas. Once he gave me 10 pages of notes [on how to play] a single scene. As a character, every little thing you do, you do for a reason.' She reflected, 'I've come to think all his characters are in some way an extension of himself.'

This autocratic approach answers the question most often asked of him: why has he never worked in Hollywood? It's not for lack of trying on Hollywood's part; he has hordes of admirers among studio executives who have tried to lure him, but in vain. Over the years, he has been offered The First Wives Club, Sister Act – and the Julia Roberts film Runaway Bride, which for a while intrigued him. He took a good hard look at the script ofThe Truman Show. There was talk of him directing a new version of Don Quixote (that other famous man of La Mancha), with Sean Connery in the title role and Robin Williams as Sancho Panza. Nothing came of that, either.

'I'm an artist,' Almodóvar told me years ago, 'and I'm part of every decision in a movie. This is not how they work in Hollywood. There, the director is part of the crew, not the main creator. I'm too old to change now. I wouldn't know how to do it.'

Other things will not change. In a profoundly Catholic country he is agnostic. 'I don't have that religious support that can give me comfort.' And he seems to function contentedly without a significant other. 'The life I live due to my work is difficult to share,' he has said.

Did he feel any kinship with other directors? He named Terrence Malick, Bernardo Bertolucci and Todd Haynes, along with Scorsese and Tarantino. Not a Spaniard among them – and further ammunition for his fellow Spaniards who would question his loyalty. But he denied this. 'I'm part of the Spanish industry,' he insisted. 'I belong to this country. My films are intensely personal, but intensely Spanish too. Going even further, they're from La Mancha – they reflect where I come from. They're a mix of La Mancha and Madrid nightlife, with a big Andy Warhol influence, and my love for American classic movies of the 1940s.' I gestured to his All About Eveposter. 'Ah, yes,' he sighed. 'I think I made movies to have the possibility to work with Bette Davis.'

In truth, he claimed, 'I'm a product of Spanish democracy. Once it was impossible to make movies like mine here. I'm a demonstration that it's a real democracy now. But it needs to evolve as a way of showing it's still alive.' He's clearly angry about the political situation in Spain. Would he like to be out on the streets with the disaffected 15-M kids? 'I miss my youth now and then. But what's important is the future of this movement. These young people are so full of energy. I'm too old to go out and camp out all night with them. But I'd be out there if I was still young.'

'The Skin I Live in' is released on August 26


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