Pedro Almodóvar’s “The Skin I Live In,” which opens Friday, continues the theme of captivity and powerlessness—whether experienced through a coma, a kidnapping or a permanent, paralyzing handicap—that has permeated films like “Talk to Her,” “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” and “Live Flesh.” Whether they’re deranged or romantic, farcical or tragic, Almodóvar’s movies always combine melodramatic stories of loss and despair with surreal, dream-like imagery. But the Almodóvar behind “The Skin I Live In,” which is adapted from Thierry Jonquet’s book “Mygale,” is more austere than we are used to; there’s a noticeable absence of both the gory theatrics in “Bad Education” and the heart-on-the-sleeve familial bonds of “Volver.” Starring Antonio Banderas—reunited with Almodóvar for the first time since 1990’s “Tie me up! Tie me down!”–as a brilliant but morally damaged surgeon conducting a truly sick experiment, “The Skin I Live In” is a story about cold, detached people, committing cold, detached atrocities.
“The world has changed for the worse in recent years, and my life has changed for the worse,” Almodóvar explained only half-jokingly at a recent press conference in New York City. “My film is about how science won’t be able to contain itself much longer. It is so close to overstepping [certain] ethical boundaries. Man as a creator will compete with God as a creator, regardless of what religion.”
(pictured: Elena Anaya and Antonio Banderas)
Almodóvar said that the film can be seen somewhat as a combination of Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” with its theme of family relations and how humans relate to “loss with a capital ‘L,’” and Lars Von Trier’s “Melancholia,” which is literally about the end of the Earth.
Asked why he chose to cast Banderas in the lead role, Almodóvar replied, “I thought he was the best actor to portray the passion of the character. I needed someone of around 50 and he’s 51, but still attractive enough so that you’d never know [the character] is a psychopath unless you’re his victim.”
Banderas said he was approached about the role at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, but it was not until years later that Almodóvar sent him the script. As he read through it, “I laughed and I was scared,” Banderas recalled. “You can be on Page Four and you’re in the altitudes of Shakespeare, and then on the next page, you’re in a Mexican soap opera. You have to take a leap of faith with him.”
Banderas said the character was “as hard to get into as it was to get out of. After I saw the film with my wife, she said, ‘Ah! Now I see why you’ve been acting weird for the past three months!’”
Lead actress Elena Anaya (“Van Helsing,” “Don’t Tempt Me”) faced a daunting physical challenge for the role of Vera. She spends a considerable amount of time in “The Skin I Live In” wearing a skin-tight body suit and performing strenuous yoga moves. Nonetheless, Anaya is thrilled to have worked with Almodóvar for the second time, after a brief role in “Talk to Her.”
“I watched the film for the first time and I felt a knot in my stomach. I could not stop crying and had to get drunk to stop,” said Anaya. “Before I watched it the second time, at Cannes, Pedro came up to me and said ‘Hold your horses, Elena!’ I don’t cry gentle. I cry like a baby.”
“The Skin I Live In” was shot mainly in Galicia, Spain, and features a cinematography by José Luis Alcaine and a score by Alberto Iglesias, both long-time collaborators of Almodóvar’s.