"They're in shock," Pedro Almodovar says, pointing to the room of silent journalists following a screening of his latest film at the New York Film Festival.
He's probably right. Almodovar's "The Skin I Live In" (or "La Piel Que Habito") centers on Dr. Ledgard, a mildly psychopathic plastic surgeon played by Antonio Banderas who is keeping a mysterious woman (Elena Anaya) as a patient -- and a prisoner used to test new, illegal kinds of skin grafting. To give much more away would spoil the immense satisfaction of unraveling the mystery for yourself, but suffice to say that "The Skin I Live In" is a taut and terrifying thriller marked by both the visual flair and twisted narrative characteristic of Almodovar's works.
Banderas, who had not worked with Almodovar since 1990's "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!" said the director had "broken all the codes, the rules of narrative."
"It was going back home to working in my own language, going back to my family," Banderas said. "I was hungry to go back."
Anaya, his co-star, is new to Almodovar, but already enthralled.
"I was wordless, speechless," Anaya said of reading the script for the first time. "I dream about getting a beautiful script in my hands like this. ... I wanted to kiss him [Almodovar] all over his body."
As in "Bad Education," a sort of transsexual romance/murder-mystery, Almodovar often plays around with the idea of gender, but he takes his experimentation further than ever in "The Skin I Live In." Asked about whether he believes gender is innate, or biological, he said, "The identity of a person is not something so simply manipulated. It exists beyond plastic surgery or genitals."
While "The Skin I Live In," presents several very funny moments, Almodovar claimed that he wanted this film to be as austere as he could make it.
"I wanted not to underline anything that could be gory with too much funny, to be the cleanest possible," he said. "Really, I try to fight against my sense of humor," he said. "In every situation in life, even in more tragic moments, humor is present."
Almodovar pointed to "Frankenstein," "Pygmalion," "Vertigo," the myth of Prometheus and the French horror film "Eyes Without a Face" as part of the "deep cultural pool of resonance" that influenced him when making the film.
"It was a reflection of any kind of creation," he said. "Even I identify sometimes with the character of Antonio."
To a point, anyway: "I'm not saying all directors should be psycho like that," he said.
"The Skin I Live In" is out today in limited release. Watch the trailer: