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."