Today: March 2, 2024
Flower of my secret, Pedro Almodovar, Marisa Paredes

Flower of my Secret

Work your way through the six films included in the excellent Almodóvar Collection and you will begin to notice certain recurring motifs. Aside from Pedro Almodóvar’s fondness for transgressive imagery and his widely-celebrated devotion to strong-yet-vulnerable women there is a fascination for embittered older women who are forever threatening to return to their native villages. Frequently played by the superb comic actress Chus Lampreave, these figures are often little more than caricatures designed to inject a little chaos and levity into the lives of his long-suffering protagonists. Flower of my Desire can be could be viewed a return to form after the failures of Kika or a re-discovery of the moral seriousness found in Almodóvar’s earlier works, but it is perhaps more interesting to view the film as an origin story for embittered older women explaining how one of those powerful-yet-vulnerable protagonists might be transformed into one of those comic stereotypes.

Marisa Paredes plays Leo, a successful writer who has reached a state of complete emotional collapse. The film introduces us to the effect before identifying the cause and so much of the opening act is devoted to painting a portrait of Leo as a woman who is completely alienated from the world around her. For example, despite having achieved incredible success as a romance writer, Leo decided to work her way through the entire canon of Feminist literary theory and emerged on the other side with a passionate hatred for the work that once provided her with both money and a sense of purpose. Using her contacts to pull a few strings, she secures a meeting with the literary editor of a national newspaper named Angel (Juan Echanove) and pitches him the idea of a high-minded literary column. Utterly besotted with this powerful-yet-strangely-vulnerable woman, Angel agrees to publish her work but only if she agrees to write a venomous critique of a populist romance writer that turns out to be her professional pseudonym. Thus, Leo’s alienation is expressed in the sublime figure of a woman using a made up name to perform a hatchet job on the novels she writes under another made up name.

This inner turmoil is further explored in a superb scene in which Leo is confronted by her squabbling female relatives. Leo’s sister Rosa (Rossy de Palma) is living with her mother but despite hating absolutely every minute of the cohabitation, she refuses to let the old woman move back to her native village. Meanwhile, Leo’s mother (Chus Lampreave) feels that Rosa’s anger is forcing her out the door and yet rather than actually leaving or trying to make peace, she spends her time sniping at Rosa and behaving in a manner so completely irrational that both sisters wind up haunted by the spectre of their own inevitable dementia.

The brilliant thing about this family dynamic is that while both women are intelligent and sensitive, they have contrived to produce a situation from which it is impossible to salvage a mutually satisfactory outcome: If Leo’s mother threatens to leave; Rosa begins to hate herself because of the implication that she must be a terrible daughter. If Rosa gets angry at her mother and expresses frustration at their forced cohabitation, her mother immediately takes umbrage and bemoans her daughter’s incessant cruelty. As with Leo, happiness is in the grasp of both Rosa and her mother and yet both women conspire to make that happiness impossible.

This metaphorical representation of Leo’s emotional state in unpacked in a series of beautifully-crafted vignettes that serve only to heap misery on the film’s protagonist who winds up so alienated and undermined that she winds up paying a complete stranger to help her take off her boots. As in all of Almodóvar’s best work, the silliness and injustice of the situation only serves to heighten the dignity and pathos of the character.

The cause of Leo’s unhappiness presents itself at the end of the second act when a visit to her friend Betty’s (Carme Elias) home is interrupted by an unexpected call from her long-absent husband Paco (Imanol Arias). Leo is overjoyed to hear from her husband and sets about planning both a lavish meal and a weekend’s sexual debauchery. However, when Paco returns and Leo embraces him, Almodóvar positions his camera behind a glass panel thereby ensuring that we never actually see them kiss. Despite the couple seeming delighted by their reunion, Leo’s failure to keep a plate of paella sufficiently warm pops the lid on a jar of resentment and it soon becomes clear that Leo’s alienation is at least partially due to the fact that her marriage had fallen apart without anything in particular having been said or done.

Depressed to the point of suicide, Leo is awoken by the voice of her mother and winds up agreeing to return to their native village. Finally disconnected from both her husband and her literary identities, Leo relaxes into a state of premature old age. This change is explained in an absolutely heart-breaking scene in which Leo’s mother observes that, like many older women, they have lost their sense of purpose and — like cows without bells – are fit only to be put out to pasture.

It is worth noting at this point that while Almodóvar makes it quite clear that Leo is on the road to embittered-old-womanhood, he does provide her with a couple of off-ramps. The first comes in the form of Leo’s cleaning lady, a once-acclaimed flamenco dancer who is lured out of retirement by her devilishly handsome son. The woman’s moment of triumph comes at the end of the film when she performs an intensely erotic dance routine with her own son, thereby proving that older women can rediscover their bells and reconnect to the sources of meaning and happiness that once provided their lives with structure. The second off-ramp comes in the form of Angel, the literary editor falls passionately in love with Leo the second they meet but while Leo seems reluctant to sleep with Angel, Angel’s devotion never diminishes for even a second.

Angel is a type of character that is seldom seen in mainstream American or British cinema as he is effectively the male equivalent of the manic pixie dream girl who ‘saves’ the protagonist by breaking through their emotional shells and providing them with a love that is both nurturing and defining. Aside from being quite a neat piece of gender-flipping that feels decades ahead of its time, the character of Angel also demonstrates Almodóvar’s moral seriousness and respect for character as, far from being a victim or prop, Angel knows precisely what he is and wants nothing more than a chance to bask in the brilliance that is Leo. Thus the two characters develop a symbiotic relationship whereby they are defined, strengthened, and supported by the love and affection of the other. Regardless of whether Angel and Leo ever wind up in bed together, it is hard to think of a more poignant and insightful example of on-screen friendship. Both lost and vulnerable, Angel and Leo are the bells around each other’s necks. The bells that guide them home.

While it is often observed that Almodóvar writes very well for women, the desire to market him as a queer filmmaker who produces joyfully camp and transgressive comedies serves to obscure the roots of his talent. If we consider the history of art house film, we can trace a straight line from François Ozon to Douglas Sirk via the work of both Pedro Almodóvar and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. That line is evident not only from the later directors’ fondness for musical numbers and transgressive silliness but also for their willingness to psychologically complex and morally serious films around the figure of the strong-but-vulnerable woman. This filmmaking tradition is as old as the Hollywood hills but it pivots around Sirk as Sirk was a director who, despite making films for women and about women, would often use his female protagonists and commercially-successful story forms to critique American society with particular attention to the injustices surrounding both gender and sexuality. Flower of my Secret finds Almodóvar at his most powerful insightful; it is a brilliant film in the tradition of Sirkian melodrama and the much-lamented and under-appreciated genre known as Women’s Films.

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