Judge Diane Wild is at a loss for regular words—she's forced to invent phrases like "not unboring" and "not untrite."
Every woman has a secret…
Call me Ms. Obvious, but I have to say it: Pedro Almodóvar is not a boring or trite filmmaker. The Flower of My Secret, then, is what happens when he writes and directs a not unboring and not untrite script, losing some of his wickedly depraved humor along the way. Though it claims to be a romantic comedy on the DVD case, it's certainly not a conventional one. And by "not conventional," I don't mean Almodóvar-unconventional, I mean that it's a sincere, antiromantic, melodramatic type of romantic comedy. Here's my open plea to studios everywhere: don't let your marketing people decide on the genre of a movie without actually watching said movie.
Facts of the Case
Leo (Marisa Paredes, All About My Mother) is a romance novelist whose own romantic life has taken a nosedive since her husband Paco (Imanol Arias) joined the peacekeeping forces in Bosnia in order to escape his stifling marriage. Her career is on a downturn as well, since she despises the successful fluff she has been writing under the pseudonym Amanda Gris, and her publisher despises the gritty novel she tried to submit instead ("We all have enough reality in our homes…reality should be banned," the publisher says.). So she begins to work for the literature section of a newspaper, where she can write scathing articles about Amanda Gris and captivate the sweet-natured and Amanda Gris-obsessed editor, Ángel (Juan Echanove), who is unaware of her other identity.
OK, I can see how you are thinking "this sounds like a romantic comedy," but remember: Pedro Almodóvar of Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown wrote and directed it. All is not as it seems.
The Flower of My Secret teases with a wonderfully strange comic opening of two different scenes that are not what they first appear. In one, two garishly dressed doctors try to convince a woman that her 16-year-old son is dead, and only appears to be alive because of the respirator that keeps him breathing. My heart is not a cold, dead thing—it really is played for lowkey humor—and it turns out that Leo's best friend Betty (Carmen Elías) is directing a role-playing scenario about organ donation. The brash colors of this scene contrast with the next shots of a grey streetscape, though even that is punctuated with bright flashes of flowers. This transitions into the second set of scenes, showing a mourning Leo gazing at her uniformed husband's picture, wearing his boots, which she literally can't remove, and typing a forlorn missive about how much she misses him. He's not dead, either, he's just in Brussels.
In both cases, the scenes go on just a little past the point of cleverness, but for the most part, Almodóvar's cleverness is very much on display here—which may or may not be a good thing, depending on your taste for showy direction. In one scene, the camera shows Leo through the mesh of a chair, making a phone call to her distant husband. It's an awkward conversation which does not help ease the distance between them. Another wonderful pair of contrasting scenes adds meaning to the Leo-Paco-Ángel triangle. In one, Ángel and Leo are standing near a glass wall, and one of a reflection of multiple Leos nearly perfect overlaps his image. In the other, a similar shot has Leo and Paco standing in front of mirrored tiles, resulting in a fractured overlap of their images. They are wonderful shots, but they stand out partly because the direction is far more interesting than the script.
The unconventionally magnetic Paredes is a mainstay in many Almodóvar productions, and she can be wonderful, but Leo is an intensely annoying character. She has moments of wry humor ("Except for drinking, everything's difficult for me") and moments of true pathos, but for the most part, her neediness is greedy, and desperation is never an attractive quality. There is a revelation for her toward the end of the movie which might qualify as a spoiler, so I won't reveal it. However, it isn't much of a surprise, and it's not necessarily supposed to be—I believe the point is that she's an idiot for not knowing. She's also a deliberately difficult and truly selfish friend. But her unlikeableness is less the point than her shrillness. This is not a woman I wanted to spend 90 minutes with. Given that she's mourning the breakdown of her relationship with a cold and critical man, it was difficult not to root for the line "good riddance" to make an appearance. (It doesn't.) With little empathy for her or for what she's lost, too much rests on the weak almost-romance with Ángel.
Ángel, while endearing, gets too little screen time and is too passive to make much of an impression as Leo's suitor. Much of his impact is in actions that take place offscreen, and he is something of a voyeur, adding to the sense of passivity. For example, he watches Leo and Betty have an emotional conversation without actually participating in it, and drives Leo to her mother's home village but leaves soon after. On the other hand, he gets one of the most delightful scenes in the film. Even if you are not impressed with the modern dance Leo's housekeeper and son perform, just wait until you see pudgy, middle-aged Ángel's version of it.
The only extra is a making-of featurette called "Dolor y vida"—pain and life. Short interviews with Almodóvar and the cast glue together long clips of the movie, and the discussion centers on an explanation of the plot and themes ("abandonment" and "the pain of a breakup," says Almodóvar, which is what leads me to believe he might not agree with the romantic comedy designation). This feature is really a commercial enticing us to watch a movie we already have in our DVD players, and offers little insight.
The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen is presented in a fine transfer that highlights the idiosyncratic use of color, with good contrast and black levels and few defects to mar the 10-year-old print. The simple but serviceable Dolby Digital 2.0 track renders the Spanish dialogue well without taking advantage of the surrounds or having much in the way of separation. Subtitles are available in English and French.
I'm still waiting for the romantic and comic payoff of this movie, and the melodrama and characters alternated between annoying and stale. There is the odd bit of odd humor and stylish direction to redeem it, but this is not Almodóvar at his best, or even at his very goodness.
Not guilty, but all involved have presented much better cases.
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Scales of Justice
• Making-of featurette
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