This is the summary, written at top speed, of what I've read and heard in the last few days about the film we've just opened.
For the first minutes after they've seen it, people are speechless.
People like it more the second time. The fact of not having to pay attention to the twists in the plot means you can enjoy the details more. That's what I've been told. Familiarity helps you enjoy people, places, books, all kinds of relationships, including the relationship with films. I remember that when it opened, I saw Polanski's "Chinatown" three times to be sure I had understood it.
The best soundtrack by Alberto Iglesias, which is saying something. I agree. Also there is great praise for José Luis Alcaine's photography and I join in the applause. Maestro Alcaine deserves all the recognition he is getting.
The first part is disconcerting. I admit that the verb disconcert makes me nervous because it can be synonymous of remoteness and surprise. It's true that, during the first hour, I show the spectator the life of three characters (Antonio, Elena and Marisa) in a large country house in Toledo, removed from the world, totally isolated, where daily life is very strange and gives rise to many and varied questions. In the first half, there are no answers. The narrator, in this case me, is doing his own thing, as they say, but nothing could be farther from the truth. In the second half (there is also consensus about this), the narrative starts to show itself, answering all the questions, to the spectator's astonishment. That is the narrative structure I chose, I'm not saying that it's ideal, or the only one, but it's the one I imposed on myself. Aware of how extreme my proposal was, I forced myself, over the years when the script was being shaped, to tie up all the loose ends. I had never worried so much before that there shouldn't be a single loose end.
The ending is the closest thing to a happy ending, however what remains in the spectator's mind is a feeling of unease. Vera Cruz (people also laugh when they hear the character say her name, I've been asked if it's a tribute to Penélope, or to Sara Montiel's film, I answer that it's both things but, to be honest, I hadn't thought about it before), well, Vera, before being christened that, is submitted to one of the most horrendous punishments. To escape, after being held captive for six years, the character (magnificent Elena Anaya) is forced to turn El Cigarral into a grave. These two circumstances cling to the spectator's skin and stay with him for days. This is also common, although the sensation changes as the days pass. I find it flattering that the film stays with the spectator for days.
The psychopath played by Antonio Banderas, the surgeon Dr. Robert Ledgard, first provokes terror and then tenderness. I think that a large percentage of the tenderness is directed at Antonio Banderas, actor, not at the monstrous Dr. Ledgard. The character of the surgeon and scientist is an amoral, unscrupulous man, with a very tragic family history. In the final stretch the character is humanized through his love for Vera. This love not only humanizes him, it also shows his vulnerability, and the combination Banderas + Frailty moves the coldest spectator. It's hard to hate Antonio, even if his character is hateful, and it's hard to condemn someone who has relinquished to such an extent all his previous power. In this case, love, vulnerability and fatality are three concepts that travel together and become mingled indissolubly.
Unlike some critics, more aware of the obvious references, none of the spectators has compared Dr. Ledgard to Dr. Frankenstein. Or me with Mary Shelley, creator of the character, although I wouldn't mind that.
Tears. A lot of people have told me that they cried at Elena Anaya's last sentence. A sentence of only two words, almost inaudible.
It isn't a horror film. Fans of this genre shouldn't go to see it with that idea because they'll be disappointed. Let's say, to judge from the first reactions, that although it's scary, the film doesn't belong to the horror genre.
One day before the opening of "The Skin I Live In" and twenty six years after it was shot, a cinema complex showed "Law of Desire". I hadn't seen it on the big screen since it opened in the 86th year of the last century. Nor had I seen it on video. I never watch my films.
For the first time, I felt a desire to see it again. Twenty six years gives sufficient distance, the problem with your own films is that you lose all ability as a spectator. And it was very moving. It's awful to say this, but I felt so proud of having made it at that time! I'd forgotten a lot of details that I gradually remembered while watching the film. I not only recovered my memory of the film but also that of all the days of shooting, of my life in Madrid, the summer, my house in Lope de Rueda, my loves, my conflicts, the overwhelming vitality of that period. A happy time but so frantic it's a miracle that all those who took part in the shoot lived to tell the tale. I remember the boundless happiness of watching Carmen Maura and Antonio Banderas rehearsing and then filming them. Both were at the highest peak of their careers, reaffirming me in what I dreamed of when I decided to devote myself to this craft: the privilege of being the first spectator of the actors' work. I don't think I could have enjoyed myself more if instead of Carmen and Antonio I'd had Bette Davis and Katherine Hepburn in front of me. I got so emotional during the projection that, before the lights went up, I took refuge in the cinema's washroom so that no one could see me in that state. I'm very reserved and I find it very embarrassing to get emotional with the images I've created myself or, at least, get emotional in public.
I even reconciled myself with the performance by the third arbitrator, never better said, the actor Eusebio Poncela, which I didn't like at the time, and we had our problems.
It was very appropriate to see "Law of Desire" again the day before the opening of "The Skin I Live In", to remember at our reunion what Antonio Banderas had meant in my career and in my life, to recognize that my eclecticism comes from long ago, and that Antonio had played an explosive psychopath twenty six years before, that the film moved through various genres and ended as an intense, nocturnal thriller, in which not all the characters survived, because that is one of the rules of the genre. Compared to "Law of Desire", "The Skin I Live In" has much less humour, and the palette of colours is darker, I don't repeat myself, but fortunately I'm still the same.
I'll continue with the general reactions.
Humour. There are basically two moments when people laugh. Two appearances. That of the Tiger Man, played with savage precision by Roberto Álamo, dressed for the occasion in a feline costume designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier (it's Carnival, the costume is justified). The character uses a peculiar way of identifying himself so that Marilia, the guardian of El Cigarral, will open the door to him. And the appearance of my brother Agustín, flanked by his son Miguel, in the vintage boutique run by the mother of Vicente (Jan Cornet). Agustín is dragging a heavy suitcase with his wife's clothes. She has just left him for the umpteenth time and he comes to the shop to sell all her clothes. I'm delighted at Agustín's comic success. I'm sure he'll be thrilled. By the way, we haven't even talked about it.
The darkness. Black is black, but as regards cinema, blackness depends on the spectator's point of view. I am no longer aware of having made my darkest film, or of having set out on a new road. The latter is very flattering, but for the moment I'm not aware of it. I guess I still don't have a perspective. I'll wait twenty six years. I only hope that when that moment comes I'll feel as proud of having written/lived/directed it as I did the other day after seeing "Law of Desire".
September 13th, 2011