Pedro Almodovar is such a confident artist that his films are intoxicating to those who love movies. As a writer and director, he’s able to express himself so completely that it becomes daunting to catalog plot points and subtexts in his films. Someone once said of the novelist Stephen King that he could publish his grocery list and it would be a bestseller. Almodovar could film his, and it would likely be fascinating. Pauline Kael called Almodovar a Dadaist clown, and that title fits him. His work is suffused with hedonistic rebellion against Spain’s political past. He said: “My rebellion is to deny Franco… I start everything I write with the idea, ‘What if Franco had never existed?’” If Franco had never existed, it’s unlikely the Almodovar we know would have, either.
The Flower of My Secret is a suffocating movie. It’s driven by the solitary plight of its romance novelist heroine, Leo, as she comes to realize that her husband doesn’t love her anymore. Almodovar’s exposition is brilliant: the first thing we see is two doctors trying to convince a grieving woman that her son is dead – she doesn’t believe them. The film is about Leo’s awakening to the fact that her own love is dead. Barry Walters writes in the San Francisco Examiner: “With his latest… the Spanish filmmaker goes back to what he does better than any other living director – post-modernizing the melodrama.” Almodovar refutes the label, however: “Flower… is a film of ‘good feelings,’ which does not imply at all any concessions to sentimentality. That is, it is a drama. Although I adore melodrama, this time I chose the aridity and the synthesis. Bile instead of honey. Tears that do not serve to let off steam, but to asphyxiate. “ As Leo, Marissa Paredes is outstanding as she brings herself to the brink of the abyss, and begins the long walk back. Her absorption is terrifying – we understand why her consuming passion drives away all those who would love her in return.
The richness Almodovar crams into this film is astonishing. His framing of scenes is cinematic perfection – the camera and point-of-view devices add visual commentary throughout the film. Mirrors and fragmented images abound. The sound design places the viewer within the scene to an extraordinary degree via meticulously placed surround sounds. The production design is sumptuous as usual – Almodovar has always demonstrated that a wild color palette is the antithesis of fascism (they can’t occupy the same space.) Irony begets irony: professional communicators surround Leo (she’s one herself), but they can’t begin to communicate their closest desires and fears to one another. Even the comic relief comments on Leo’s plight: her mother and her sister are locked in a never-ending, reflexive squabble. They don’t know any other way of relating to one another.
The denouement will be a disappointment to those who prefer melodrama. For those who enjoy character, however, it’s a logical conclusion. By seeing his central thread all the way through, Almodovar has achieved his most focused work to date. The Flower of My Secret is actually a small film, as if Almodovar could create such a thing. It’s a great movie.
February 10, 1999