Ask 31-year-old Spanish actress Assumpta Serna about a scene in the film "Matador" in which she murders her lover in bullfight style--at the peak of passion--and she sweetly answers, "It was very exciting. That kind of passion isn't sick--it shows a love that lasts forever."
Ask her about her college years and she responds, "I studied law for three years, but when I was 19, I decided I preferred being an anarchist."
Even in the middle of a hectic fashion photo shoot at a Melrose Avenue design gallery, she kept her cool. Wearing a long, midnight-blue gown, she dangled her feet from a pink divan and bummed a cigarette as she waited for the Gamma photographer to set up a new shot.
But if you want to see Serna lose her cool, ask about how "Matador" has fared in France. (Some French critics have panned the outrageous sex-'n'-death farce from director Pedro Almodovar.)
The actress lives in Paris part-time, but she still hasn't grown accustomed to the lofty, Gaulois-stained pretentions of most Gallic cinephiles. At the very mention of French critics, she bolted upright, waving her cigarette in the air.
"People here in America are like people in Madrid--they laugh and relish the film," Serna said firmly. "But in Paris--hmmph!"
She made a sour face, twirling a finger around her ear. "They were so busy looking for deep, philosophical meanings that they couldn't enjoy it."
Serna shrugged. "I think the French are finally coming around, but they are late. When they first saw 'Matador' (it opened in France in 1986), I remember a famous critic in Paris telling me that I should never let anyone see this film. He said it would be terrible for my career--that Almodovar didn't know where to put his camera."
Wasn't she offended? "Not at all." She moved to a low-slung dining table where she struck a languid pose for the photographer. "I liked that response. I don't mind someone hating a movie, just as long as they're not indifferent."
Almodovar would be proud. Some critics dismissed the brash Spaniard as a deranged clown whose films revel in grisly violence and campy excess. Others see him as an inspired madman--a cross between Luis Bunuel and John Waters--whose garishly erotic fantasies and daft images shimmer with the obsessive splendor of genius.
But few have been indifferent.
Comparing his disreputable sensuality to the young Brian De Palma, Pauline Kael recently wrote: "Almodovar's movies are an outburst of a post-Franco hedonistic spirit; in a sense, they're all midnight movies."
"Matador" isn't for the squeamish. It revolves around a gored bullfighter who arouses himself by watching snuff films and his bumbling young student, who tries to rape his mentor's girlfriend--but faints at the sight of blood. Serving as an attorney for both troubled men is Serna, a long-limbed femme fatale who practices her own set of matador thrusts on handsome young lovers.
The critics have swooned. Los Angeles Herald Examiner reviewer Peter Rainer called Serna "an extraordinary actress and camera subject." Almodovar clearly visualizes his leading lady as a rapacious female matador (she even wears her hair pulled back into a horsetail braid to emphasize the torero image).
Donning a black wig and showing off cheekbones as sharp as daggers, Serna comes off as a film noir temptress--it's no surprise that admiring reviewers compare her to Joan Crawford, Ava Gardner or Rita Hayworth.
In person, Serna has little of this haughty grandeur. Displaying the slim, compact build of a dancer, she has wide brown eyes, a cheery disposition and the eager curiosity of someone who has lived the nomadic life of an international actress for the last decade.
Ordering a tuna sandwich at a West Hollywood eatery, she apologized for her hesitant English while avidly quizzing her companion about the menu's exotic American fast-food cuisine.
Born in Barcelona, Serna grew up in a comfortable, middle-class family. Her father had hopes of her becoming a lawyer--and Serna did spend three years studying law. While she enjoyed school (and is now fluent in half a dozen languages), she eventually rebelled against her parent's guidance.
"I remember when I was about 14, I'd act in these pageants in school and I don't think anyone thought I was very good. I remember my father saw me on a Saturday, and on Sunday morning we were sitting at home, having hot chocolate, and both he and my mother were both smiling very contentedly.
"And when I asked why, my father said, 'Well, we know one thing--you'll never be an actress!' "
The bad review didn't discourage her. "I think it made me sure that I would act," Serna said. "It made me rebel, which was good. When you're young, you have to be against something."
By 19, Serna was an "anarchist." She entered Barcelona's School of Dramatic Arts, abandoned her law studies and ended up in an anti-regime theater troupe. She fondly recalls rushing out into the streets, beating on lampposts and guzzling champagne, when news of Franco's death came over the radio.
"Our plays weren't commercial at all," she said with a wry smile. "They were against religion, against the military, against the upper classes--against it all."
Her parents were outraged. "They locked the door on me for four years," she said. "They were very upset. I even had to change my name. My father was so angry that he insisted I not use his name because he thought it would bring shame on the family.
"Even now, we get along, but we don't speak about my work. My father doesn't see my movies or read the reviews in the paper. He doesn't think movies are very respectable."
Perhaps it's for the best that Serna's father hasn't seen her escapades in "Matador."
"My mother did call me when she heard about the film," Serna said, raising her eyebrows. "She said, 'Are you really doing that movie that's about. . . . And you play a woman who takes her lovers and. . . . '
"She couldn't even bring herself to say the descriptions," Serna said. "She'd just say, 'You did that?' and I'd say, 'Yes, mother. That's me!' "
"Matador" wasn't Serna's first film with Almodovar. She had a bit part in his debut movie, "Pepi, Lucy, Bom and Other Girls Like Mom," which he started, stopped and completed a year later because he ran out of money.
"Pedro knew I'd just married my husband, who was acting in the film," she recalled. "So he cast me as a woman who'd just married an actor. That's his most striking characteristic. He likes to take things from real life and put them in his movies--but always from his perspective."
Almodovar demands a great deal of trust from his actors, who are not allowed to see dailies or fiddle with his scripts. "Pedro has a wonderful sense of humor," Serna said. "During the big death scene in the film, he played this great opera music on the set and he would sing along very loudly, as if he were on stage performing for us.
"But you have to be open to what he wants. Sometimes he would ask me to cry, even when I had just been smiling in the last scene. And I'd say, 'How will this work?' And he'd laugh and say, 'Don't worry. Now you must cry.' "
Serna insisted she never felt constricted by Almodovar's obsessive sense of control, but actresses have ways of evening the score. "Pedro hates to have people know it, but he improvises a lot," she said slyly. "He wanted people to think his scripts are very thought-out, but I can not lie. They're not!"
Serna said she eagerly awaits imports from America, saying that her favorite directors are Steven Spielberg and Alan Rudolph--"I met him once and he talked about love, which is very strange for a director, no?"
(Her favorite actress is Katharine Hepburn: "I've always wanted to enter a room the way she did--she always gave you something that was so unexpected.")
"The problem in Spain today is that we have plenty of talent and plenty of scripts, but we have no industry yet--so we depend on film festivals to show our movies," she said, lighting another cigarette. "It's sad, because when the French come to New York, they are seen as importing prestige and culture.
"But when we come, we look like poor guys--underdogs--begging for someone to show our film. The French culture has a unity we don't have. They are La France. In Spain, we have the same language, but different cultures. The Basques, the Catalonians--they've all gone their separate ways."
So she's willing to go anywhere for the right part, even though she ackowledged that the constant travel led to the break-up of her first marriage. "I like to be places where I don't know the language so well, where you can open your mind. It's more exciting--it makes you innocent again.
"That's what I like about my job. I've learned to deal with life, with things that don't come so easily. On a film, you have to deal with 70 people all in the same room, with people you don't know or people you don't even like. But that's the secret--you learn to find what's good about them."
Such optimism from the star of a movie that celebrates love as fatally intertwined with the rapture of death?
"Ah, but isn't that the kind of passion which will last forever?" Serna said, exhaling a big puff of smoke. "For me, the scene where I have picked up a man on the street and am preparing to kill him--you could say it's the true ideal of love. After all, here is this man who got his wish, to make love to me."
Serna beamed. "So he has gotten what he always wanted--eternal love. After that, what else is there to live for?"