Flower of My Secret
The widely held perception of Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar and his films is a reductive one. Since the international breakthrough success of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown in 1988, Almodóvar has more or less lived up to his public image by delivering several outrageously camp, effortlessly opulent comedies of sexual manners and up-market lifestyles.
But Almodóvar has never been entirely content with this image. His films have explored many moods – from the early underground comedies, which are radically politicised versions of John Waters' grungy sexcapade romps, to the sombre proletarian portrait of What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1985) and the darkly erotic psychodrama of Matador (1986).
A connoisseur of the classic Hollywood films of Billy Wilder, Frank Capra and Alfred Hitchcock, Almodóvar has always endeavoured to emulate their passion, high style and biting social comment – but in his own way, for his own time and culture. And that means, above all, mixing diverse moods in a single film, walking a fine line between comedy and drama, as in Law of Desire (1987) or Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990).
Almodóvar has sometimes lost his audience in his unceasing search for odd, hybrid narrative forms – a comic thriller, for instance, or a kitchen-sink farce. But perhaps the anchor in his cinema all along has been not comedy but melodrama – the kind of tortured 'women's picture' that Hollywood masters such as Douglas Sirk, Vincente Minnelli and George Cukor used to make. With The Flower of My Secret Almodóvar has at last come clean and made a pure melodrama.
It is a stunning, surprising, deeply moving film. Comic touches are, of course, never entirely absent: the opening section, with its enigmatic flashes of what looks like a bad TV soap opera interrupting the introduction of our distraught, hapless heroine Leo (Marisa Paredes), promises a familiar Almodóvar soufflé of fun and mayhem.
But events immediately become more serious here. Leo is a complex character – somewhat pathetic in her pining for her absent husband Paco (Imanol Arias), but emotionally tough and fiercely intellectual in other areas of her life. In fact, Leo struggles with the burden of a double identity: while composing a serious novel and caustic essays of social comment, she rakes in the bounty from the many romance novels she has written under a pseudonym.
The twists and turns of Leo's double life are intriguing and sometimes hilarious, but Almodóvar keeps them firmly in the periphery of his story. The disintegration of Leo's marriage and her subsequent attempt to rebuild a shattered identity are the centre of this film.
In Old Hollywood days, the label of 'woman's director' was often (as in the case of Cukor) a euphemism for gayness. The industrial system of the time may have hidden the plain fact of this, but it also cleverly exploited the gay sensibility of such artists – producing, in the process, some of the cinema's finest melodramas of female experience. Almodóvar is a self-styled woman's director, and he fully lives up to this great, gay tradition.
Paredes is astonishing as Leo: by turns fragile, neurotic, melancholic, resistant, resilient and incandescent. Above all, she is a creature who yearns and desires. The Flower of My Secret is welcome antidote to American movies such as the overrated Nobody's Fool (1994) which pretended to present an older man (Paul Newman) as raunchy and vital, but contrived to keep him a hundred miles away from the actual prospect of sex.
Surprisingly for Almodóvar, this film has little explicit sexual content. But scenes of Leo trying to drag her reluctant husband to bed, or erotically taunting a far younger, angelic-looking boy, are indelible. It seems like a long time – even within the decorated halls of European art cinema – since we have witnessed such an extraordinarily real woman on screen.
The Flower of My Secret shows Almodóvar at the peak of his directorial craft. One need only study the quietly wondrous scenes of Leo caught between her bickering sister (Rossy de Palma) and mother (Chus Lampreve) to see the filmmaking skill that Woody Allen so fatally lacks: the ability to blend diverse actors at varying pitches into a striking and pleasing ensemble.
Many critics have referred to this as Almodóvar's return to form after the uncertainty of High Heels (1991) and the disaster of Kika (1993). But such a comment severely undersells The Flower of My Secret. It is far more than a mere comeback; it is among the very best films of Almodóvar's fabulous career.
© Adrian Martin March 1996