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Sunday, 10 August 2008

The Flower of My Secret (1995)

The first time I saw a Pedro Almodovar film it was one of his earlier comedies, a highly unusual one but a comedy nonetheless. I saw a couple more of these, quickly became a fan, and then discovered a far more serious side of Almodovar in films like Talk to Her and All About My Mother. So when this film opens with a couple of doctors trying to persuade a mother that her son Juan is dead, I'm not surprised. He's only 16 years old and he's on an artificial respirator so he appears to be breathing even though his brain no longer functions. The doctors are trying to find a way to ask her to donate his organs to save other patients.

However Almodovar is never obvious, so it's not too surprising to find that none of this is real. The 'mother' is a nurse and she's acting out the role to doctors training to be part of an organ donation plan. Our main story intersects with this one but how is not obvious for quite some time. The real focus is on Leo Macías, a professional writer of romance novels who has been hidden under the pseudonym of Amanda Gris for a couple of decades. However while she's highly successful she's certainly got problems.

She has problems with her husband, who is an army officer who is away in Brussels for very long periods at a time tied up with the war in Bosnia. He was in the ministry of defense but volunteered for the peacekeeping force which she sees as a deliberate effort to keep away from her. She has problems with her family too, as her mother and sister can't talk to each other without everything becoming a drama. This would seem to be at least one of the key reasons why she has problems with her work. She's contracted to five romance novels a year for three years, but now she's having trouble writing them because everything she writes pink turns out black. She's writing grim reality and her romance publisher is more than a little upset.

In accordance with what she's writing, she gets hired into the literature department of El Pais, a major newspaper. This puts her into the bizarre position of writing a scathing attack on her pseudonym, under another pseudonym, while her employer writes the flipside complimentary piece, not knowing who she really is. Yes, this is Almodovar alright, whether it's light hearted comedy or deep and meaningful social commentary, and this turns out to be both, a dangerous tightrope that he seems to be able to walk without any worries. Most modern directors would fall off before they ever got up the ladder.

This one was engrossing but not quite as powerfully memorable as either Talk to Her or All About My Mother; it was also amusing but not as funny as Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown or What Have I Done to Deserve This? It would seem to be a logical midpoint though between old school Almodovar and new school Almodovar, say between Kika and All About My Mother. The change in Almodovar's own writing doesn't quite mirror the change in that of Leo Macías. The only other film that fits in this slot would be Live Flesh, but I haven't seen that one yet.

Even if it's not Almodovar's greatest, it's still a fascinating film and there's much that impresses. As always almost all the key characters are women with depth and the cast are well up to the challenge, especially Marisa Paredes in the lead as Leo Macías aka Amanda Gris. She's an Almodovar regular, as are so many of his actresses, dating back to Dark Habits in 1983. He doesn't provide easy roles but he has a knack of either picking actresses who can fulfil them properly or of wringing great performances out of them. There's only one male role of substance here too, for Juan Echanove as Ángel but that's one out of probably seven or eight substantial roles in this film. Almodovar himself has said of Hollywood that 'the studios have forgotten that women are fascinating'. He certainly hasn't.

The story is engrossing, but the other thing that leaps out here to the senses is the way in which everything is designed. There's a serious care given to the way rooms and houses are decorated, not just the colours but the placing and the space. I'm not going to suddenly redesign my own house to match but I was impressed with the effort given and the depth and fulfilment of that effort. This is yet another great Almodovar. One day I may get to see one of his films that isn't, but it hasn't happened yet.

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