Mentor and muse

INTRIgUING CHEMISTRY Pedro and Cruz on the cover of ‘Vanity Fair’.

They make an odd couple. The slender Hollywood beauty, all eyeliner and understated glamour, and the tubby Spanish director with the pan scourer haircut and designer anorak. Imagine a wary deer and an inquisitive bear in the same over-furnished hotel room. If you saw Penélope Cruz and Pedro Almodóvar walking along the street together, you might wonder what makes them tick, but they have the makings of one of the all-time great partnerships between a film-maker and his muse. Almodóvar has transformed Cruz into a screen goddess. Cruz has brought Almodóvar mainstream adulation and bigger box office. Even their names — Pedro and Penelope (or Pe, as Cruz is known in the Spanish newspapers) — have a symmetry.

On the whole, Almodóvar is the more garrulous of the two. Cruz tends to play the role of glamourous assistant — or dutiful daughter — when they are in a room together. This despite the fact that she is more fluent in English than Almodóvar who relies, when things get linguistically sticky, on a translator. She gazes over at her director adoringly and laughs at his jokes. When I see them later at a British Film Institute question-and-answer session to celebrate Broken Embraces, their fourth film together, it’s noticeable how Almodóvar dominates. Cruz speaks just twice.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that she allows him to take centre stage. Apart from her father, Almodóvar has been the most important male figure in her life, a fundamental part of her background and her career. “He changed the way I looked at the world before I even knew him,” she says, her face lighting up. Cruz is from Alcobendas, a high-rise suburb just north of Madrid. She spent most of her time when growing up in her mother’s beauty salon, listening to stories over the hum of the hairdryers.
She’d obsessively watch Almodóvar films on the family’s Betamax video recorder. She was 14 when she saw Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down at the cinema. “I went into the city to see that movie and that was the day that changed a lot of things for me,” she remembers. “In terms of making the decision that day to become an actress. It felt like going to the moon. Almost impossible. Coming from where I come from.”

To Cruz, 25 years younger than Almodóvar, he seemed to symbolise everything that was changing about Spain following Franco. His films were shocking, flamboyant, irreverent, anarchic as well as warm and funny and sometimes plain daft. “Even when I was a little girl, I identified with him,” she says. “This is the person I am interested in. Why does he see the world that way? Why does he understand women the way he does? I wanted to know this person who was brave enough to stand up for himself politically.”
As for Almodóvar, he first became aware of Cruz in 1992 in Bigas Luna’s gloriously raucous melodrama Jamón, Jamón in which she played the daughter of a prostitute alongside Javier Bardem. She was a shy 17-year-old who had started acting after winning a talent contest two years earlier but you can already see her as a sex symbol in the making. “She had a very teenage voice which was sometimes completely off-key but also unique,” recalls Almodóvar. “She had this passion that she breathes out of every pore, that element of cheekiness, which is really suited to my films.”

Almodóvar has boasted in the past that he “saved her from Hollywood.” The film industry is full of male directors and their beautiful muses. One thinks of Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, Alfred Hitchcock and Grace Kelly, Quentin Tarantino and Uma Thurman. It’s a relationship that is not as subservient as it sometimes sounds. The director bags a trophy-winning performance, but at the same time the actress brings the kind of stellar magnetism that directors can often only dream of. The producers love it — they get the kind of cinematic chemistry that makes a picture instantly marketable. Audiences are enamoured by a relationship between the man behind the camera and the woman on the screen which seems palpably real — and often is.
However, it is the sensuous side of Cruz that Almodóvar celebrates on screen. “There is something that works really well in our relationship that combines both our friendship and the professional side,” says Almodóvar. “We operate like lovers. So while we don’t have the pleasures of sex, we don’t have the complications of sex either. We work really well as a couple who don’t sleep together.” Penelope giggles in the corner. “There is no one even close to him,” she says. “I am always comparing everything to working with him.” When they don’t have a film to make together they meet for dinner or go to the cinema.

He nurtures the Mediterranean side of her character that Hollywood rarely seems to understand. The generous cleavage, the bed hair, the volatile temperament, the carnality. He masterminds everything, down to the earrings she wears. In their first film, Live Flesh — Cruz plays a wailing prostitute who gives birth on a bus; she’s only in the film for the firSt eight minutes but she steals the movie — she is almost unrecognisable from some of the vanilla fare she’d usually been seen in. In All About My Mother, she is a Prada-wearing nun who gets pregnant by a transsexual and ends up with Aids.

It seems unlikely that Woody Allen would have cast in her Oscar-winning role in Vicky Cristina Barcelona if he had not been impressed by Almodóvar’s vision of her as the passionate, prosthetic-bottom-wearing single mother in Volver. She agrees. “Volver was a liberation,” she says. “It opened a lot of doors.”
At the same time, she seems uniquely qualified to bring out the best in Almodóvar. His best films have starred Cruz. He says: “She exposes herself more than I do. She is offering up her body, her face, her eyes.” She’s able to flit from farce to tragedy in a moment, which suits his scripts; she carries the audience with her even when his plots become outrageously convoluted, which they are inclined to do.
Broken Embraces is Almodóvar’s 17th film and it’s all about the symbiotic relationship between director and actress. Part thriller, part love story, shot in the style of film noir, at its core is Almodóvar’s infatuation with Cruz.  The complex story line follows a love affair between a first-time actress, Lena, played by Cruz, and her director, Mateo, played by Lluís Homar.  In Broken Embraces, she plays an essentially good woman knocked off course by circumstances beyond her control. Lena’s life is driven by loss and Cruz says she spent most of her time off set in tears. “She is very different to me and that was the way to get close to Lena. I would cry just to release all the emotion.”

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