Pedro Almodóvar’s overarching project, spanning three decades and counting, makes the most sense to me as the redemption of the soap-operatic. I see it in his films’ bright colors; in their plots driven by the sturm und drang of love, death, and betrayal; and in their besieged women who balance a certain noble endurance with a hint of trashiness. (Over time, the noble endurance has taken the edge over the trashiness.) Watching the entire Almodóvar canon, my brain files each movie as one episode of a single, melodramatic story, albeit a complicated, ever-shifting one which begins in extremity and will surely end in relative mildness. While the filmmaker doesn’t encourage this way of thinking — characters from one film don’t seem acquainted with characters from the others, though my, what notes they’d have to compare — neither does he discourage it. Formal, thematic, visual, and even verbal echoes resonate across his pictures, and in The Flower of My Secret, a few of them crash right up against each other.
Almodóvar builds the film around Leocadia Macias, known to her public — and to her public, only — as romance novelist Amanda Gris. Frustrated by a emerging dissatisfaction with her literarily unchallenging racket, a military-strategist husband who’s grown both emotionally and geographically distant, and the unquenchable aphrodisiac side-effects of one of her medications, Leo lets Amanda Gris’ novels go bleak. Bleak in a way, in fact, that meets the standards of Pedro Almodóvar pictures, although Leo’s sensibility, as reflected in an article she anonymously publishes against Amanda Gris’ latest opus, may have permanently taken this turn toward the Almodóvarian. Her life then takes its own swerve in the same direction.
Man thievery, drug addiction, crime, attempted suicide, family squabbles, a retreat to the village, difficulties with the maid, sudden revelations of artistic potential: Almodóvar’s followers, among whom I count myself, have come to expect all these developments from him and more. This film delivers them without doubt or hesitation, but some smell in it a whiff of the bitterness of an auteur chafing against his reputation. “We have the materials here for a comedy, but not the willingness,” Roger Ebert writes, “and gradually the awful suspicion dawns that Almodóvar himself, like Leo, is tired of his success and despairs that his producers will ever let him do something ‘serious.’”
I would hesitate to declare any Almodóvar movie “serious,” just as I would hesitate to declare any Almodóvar movie “not serious.” Like soap operas, they first allow you to approach them as inconsequential fluff, and then they plunge their characters into an exaggerated drama whose stakes quickly become everything. A genuine soap still allows the discerning viewer the opportunity to write the thing off for its cheap, hazy look and the profusion of artifacts of its rushed production. Cutting crisply, designing with deliberate solidity, and cultivating a host of the classical cinematic qualities, Almodóvar offers no such escape hatch. If you can’t accept the story’s grave oscillations at the same time as the storyteller’s brazenness, aestheticism, and brazen aestheticism, you’ll have to reject his entire enterprise.
Hence my suspicions about whether Almodóvar truly feels pangs of regret over squandering his creative will in a league of ambition alongside soap operas and romance novels. Over and above breathing weight and body into the flimsy materials he shares with those forms, he introduces a kind of complexity they’ve rarely known. Extending almost involuntarily over decades and decades, the long-term continuity of soap operas and romance novels inevitably grows Byzantine: characters appear, locations shift, characters fall away, extended dream sequences reveal themselves, characters undergo resurrection. Almodóvar operates on a higher level. He can manipulate person, background, and layer of reality with the hardiest daily scriptwriter, but he performs an altogether more impressive craft with less tangible elements of narrative.
Reflection on Almodóvar’s filmography reveals exercises in theme and leitmotif: repetition, echo, revision, reiteration. These often occur in the studies of the suffering but resourceful and faintly lascivious female protagonists for which he’s known, but more broadly, look no further than the name of his production company: El Deseo. Almodóvar’s films showcase stifled desire, forbidden desire, aggressive desire, cruel desire, and desire granted but momentary release, to name a few points along his preferred area of the spectrum. The Flower of My Secret presents us with Leo’s smolderingly futile, chemically enhanced desire for her checked-out husband; the mutual desire between Leo’s best friend and said (now presumably checked-in) husband; and the comparatively mild but refreshingly benign desire directed Leo’s way by the editor who publishes her screed against Amanda Gris. And then we have the resentment Leo feels after having painted herself into a career corner by writing about desire, so long and so schlockily.
Though this sort of thing also fuels the tackiest, potboilest daytime dramas and mass-market paperbacks, The Flower of My Secret announces its comparative richness and self-awareness right away. The film opens with a back-and-forth between two simple shots: one in which a pair of young doctors strain to convince a recently bereaved mother to release her son’s very useful organs, and another in which the mother throws up every excuse not to. (“But will the organs go to an Arab?”) When the mother gets up and leaves the room, she emerges before a row of students taking notes on the very live camera feed we’ve just been watching. Almodóvar’s exposure of this woman as an actress — a simulator, of sorts, to prepare these trainees for the rigors of Spain’s organ donation program — foreshadows the events of All About My Mother, his picture to appear two years later.
The movie’s exchange with the real world continues. Late in the story, an enormous banner unfurls in Madrid to promote a new, acceptably rose-tinted Amanda Gris novel, albeit one mysteriously penned by someone other than the disaffected Leo. Publishers sensed that this banner, left in place after Almodóvar got the shot he needed, stirred up sufficient interest to warrant the printing of a “real” Amanda Gris novel. Back in the film’s reality, Leo discovers that her flamenco-queen housemaid’s junkie son sold the discarded manuscript of her rejected “black” novel to a movie studio. While the imprint Amanda Gris presumably built objects to a novel about a woman who stuffs the corpse of her incestuously randy husband into a restaurant freezer, Almodóvar adherents will recall that he did reasonably well by such a lady in Volver.
Perhaps, then, The Flower of My Secret does perform a reflexive duty on Almodóvar’s part. To take it as the director’s outcry against his pigeonholing seems too simple. The picture may really capture a filmmaker, fifteen years after his first feature, becoming aware of the full extent of his powers. The confrontations with the law, the violent crimes of passion, the sexually charged manipulations, the wallowing in luxurious seediness, and the parade of transvestites, transexuals, and related enthusiasts that characterize his early projects thin out afterward. He films continue to feed off of the same vein of broad, melodramatic sound and fury as always, and they still treat it with cinematic seriousness, but after The Flower of My Secret, the process it differently, refusing to stop at darkening it and and push its consequences to wherever the limits acceptable happened to lay at the time.
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