Pedro Almodovar has defined his cinematic career as a rejection of Franco's Spain, so it is odd, in his new film, The Flower of My Secret, to find him embracing the Spanish equivalent of family values.
Almodovar moved by himself to Madrid when he was 16 and spent years flowering in the city's cultural nooks and crannies: writing for underground newspapers, performing in punk bands and theater groups, making super-8 movies. Yet the Madrid of Flower is an awful place, full of junkies and adulterers, scheming careerists, and bourgeois tantrums; in other words, quite like any other big First World city. Redemption, says Almodovar, lies elsewhere, in the village, where the family preserves its tried-and-true arts of living. In the 1980s Almodovar became famous in this country as a brash young Spaniard whose movies treated sex with farcical abandon (Law of Desire), but he's not so young anymore, and his career seems to be developing an arc that, as Flower suggests, will bring him full circle.
At the center of Flower's intricate plot is a woman named Leo Macias (Marisa Paredes), who writes romance novels under the pseudonym Amanda Gris. She's a good-looking lady in her prime, but she's also a love junkie — perhaps from grinding out all that pulp year after year. Her husband, Paco (Imanol Arias), a military officer, has been attached to a NATO military unit in Brussels, and Leo is lonely, having been left behind in Madrid.
“Lonely” doesn't quite capture her frantic self-involvement; she barrels through the movie as if expecting Paco to turn up at any moment. She's up; she's down; laughing; then in tears: It's no wonder Paco took the Brussels posting. As much as she insists that she's in love with him, needs him, can't live without him, the truth is that she's in love with being in love with him: She cherishes her obsession and the pain it brings her. She lives to suffer.
Leo's brand of writerly mania is not exactly the stuff of a happy marriage; but then, what is? If Almodovar has a clue about domestic happiness, he keeps it to himself. Flower offers little hope for human intimacy. When Paco returns to Madrid on a 24-hour leave, reluctance is written all over his face, even as Leo prances edgily about, urging him to eat the paella she has ruined. Kissing leads to a shower to a shouting match in which Leo kneels in front of him, as if by assuming the position of physical intimacy she can rekindle a fire they both know has irretrievably gone out.
“Is there the tiniest chance of saving our marriage?” she whimpers as he strides off to Torrejon air base to catch a plane for the Balkans.
“None,” he says. Meaning: I would rather risk my life in Bosnia than spend another moment with you.
That's the kind of exchange that doesn't find its way into Amanda Gris' romance novels; love affairs in books never turn ugly or run to seed or just wither, the way they so often do in life. That's why she writes the romances: to make right what she cannot make right in her own life. She's made a lucrative career out of fantasy and denial.
Denial is a dangerous if necessary drug in Almodovar's hands. Leo refuses to see that her husband no longer loves her until he virtually shouts it in her face. And she refuses to see that he's having an affair with her best friend, Betty (Carmen Elias), even when Paco calls Betty while Leo is visiting her. Leo, in her vast solipsism, accepts Paco's explanation that he called her at Betty's because he knew she'd be there. Such a defiantly lame explanation suggests that Paco doesn't care if Leo finds out about the affair — that he wants her to — but of course she's utterly, professionally oblivious.
Leo never actually discovers the affair; Betty, in exasperation, reveals it to her — then mentions that it's over. In Almodovar's Madrid, things just don't work out. Not even Leo's clandestine literary career as a potboiler.
There's a brilliantly funny scene with her editor and publisher, who are vexed that her latest work is rife with murder, rape, incest, and other unsavory details of modern life. They play shrill cop/sinister cop: Leo's fiercely overambitious editor (Kiti Manver) threatens her with a lawsuit and exposure, while the publisher carefully reviews the terms of Leo's contract, including a clause forbidding her fiction to reflect “any social conscience.”
Although Leo's work, under her own name, has attracted the attention of a prominent newspaper editor, Angel (Juan Echanove), Leo regards her life as hopelessly empty and tries to end it by swallowing pills. Only an improbable telephone call from her mother (Chus Lampreave) saves her; together the two return to their ancestral village and knit in the sun with other widowed or jilted women.
Almodovar likes to make films about people making films; he opened Law of Desire with that famous Antonio Banderas porn-film bit, and he opens Flower with the shooting of a training video (directed by Betty) designed to help doctors harvest the organs of patients they can't save. The little video embodies the movie's central conceit: of accepting even the most unpleasant reality and trying to turn it to advantage — whether by harvesting organs or, despite a broken marriage and professional disgrace, returning to the city to do battle on the twin fronts of love and work. If you have lemons, make lemonade.
Leo's country sojourn settles her down. She manages not to sleep with her maid's handsome son, Antonio (Joaquin Cortes), though they are alone in her apartment drinking whiskey. And she manages to preserve her connection to chubby Angel, who adores her despite her wild moodiness.
Almodovar ties his movie up with a neat little bow that seems pat, even Hollywood schmaltzy — like something from an Amanda Gris novel: The ending is meant to affect, but it doesn't. Leo's self-pity and grief are of operatic dimension — she's yet another Almodovar woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Her fate must be equally operatic in scope; it can't be a kiss from a good man and a glass of wine (or lemonade?) on the divan in front of a crackling fire. The movie builds up like a sneeze that doesn't happen; what's left is a dull ache, faintly dissatisfying.
The Flower of My Secret opens Fri, March 22, at the Bridge in S.F. and the Albany in Berkeley.