Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Flower of My Secret

Originally Written and Posted at on 7/24/08.

After his international breakthrough with 1988's Mujeres al Borde de un Ataque de Nervios (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), Pedro Almodovar became the leading Spanish filmmaker of his generation. Then as he entered the 1990s, his follow-up films !Atame! (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!), Tacones Lejanos (High Heels), and Kika that all starred Victoria Abril received mixed reviews with critics complaining for its sense of extravagance and sensationalism. Yet, the films Almodovar made in the early 90s along with some of his early work in the 80s were what audiences thought they expected from Almodovar. Yet, the openly-gay Spanish auteur felt it was time to move forward as he made a film that was considered semi-biographical about his struggles as an artist for 1995's La Flor de mi Secreto (The Flowers of My Secret).

Written and directed by Pedro Almodovar, La Flor de mi Secreto tells the story of a very successful romance novelist who reaches a crossroads in both her professional and personal life. Unhappy in her marriage to a military officer and compromised by publishers who wants her to write more sentimental-driven, happy-ending romances. The writer starts to take on darker themes through her writing as she also begins to question her life choices. A far more personal film than Almodovar's previous affairs, the film would mark a transition for the director that would lead to some of more recent, latter day dramas that would give him international prestige. Starring Almodovar regulars Marisa Paredes, Rossy de Palma, and Chus Lampreave along with Juan Echanove and Joaquin Cortes. La Flor de mi Secreto is an engrossing yet studious film from Pedro Almodovar.

For 20 years, the novels of Amanda Gris have been very popular as they're known for their sentimental, happy endings, and idealization of romance. Yet, the identity of Amanda Gris has been unknown except to publishers and a few people as the true identity of the famed novelist is Leo Macias (Marisa Paredes). Macias' life however, is reflecting nothing like her novels or her love life. Instead, she’s alone as her husband Paco (Imanol Arias) is currently working for NATO on a peacekeeping mission in Bosnia. Macias' writing has become darker to reflect her mood as she is also tiring of writing the novels of Amanda Gris. Turning to her best friend Betty (Carmen Elias), Betty suggests to write for a newspaper under the supervision of a colleague named Angel (Juan Echanove).

Angel is a self-professed fan of Amanda Gris as Leo shows him a work-in-progress novel as she is hired. Only surrounded by her maid Blanca (Manuela Vargas), Leo's life is also troubled by a bickering relationship between her sister Rosa (Rossy de Palma) and mother (Chus Lampreave) as the mother wants to return to the village of La Mancha. Things get worse when Leo meets with her publishers Tomas (Juan Jose Otegui) and Alicia (Gloria Munoz) who remind Leo of her contract to continue to write "pink" novels in the style of Amanda Gris as they rejected the draft of her dark story. Despite her loneliness and feeling compromised in her work, she finds satisfaction in taking another pseudonym in working for Angel's paper about her own criticisms of Amanda Gris with Angel, under a pseudonym revealing why he loves Gris.

Then one day as she visits Betty, she gets a call from Paco who is set to return only for 24 hours. Leo is very excited as Blanca's son Antonio (Joaquin Cortes) visits wanting to talk to his mother about a project that he’s trying to produce. Blanca and Antonio leave as Leo waits for Paco to arrive. Paco does but with news that leaves Leo in a huge, melodramatic state. Distraught, she receives a message from her mother who has decided to leave Madrid for good after another fight with Rosa. Leo has hit rock bottom where during a protest, she runs into Angel as she reveals her secret. Tired, Angel accompanies Leo and her mother to La Mancha as Leo needs a break. With Angel deciding to help out, Leo comes to term with her professional life and her failing marriage while trying to figure out how her dark story is now becoming a film.

The film in many ways, in comparison to what Almodovar was doing prior to this film, is a transitional film not just figuratively but also literally. It's a film about a novelist tired of writing "pink" novels to try and write stories that are extremely different to reflect her own life that's practically in trouble. Around the same time, her husband, who had been a muse of sorts, refuses to be with her as their marriage falls apart as Leo is feeling like she isn't just losing her husband but her muse. In response, she writes a dark story whose plot is similar to another story that Almodovar would eventually tell in his 2006 film Volver. Almodovar also uses literary references where during the scene between Leo and Paco breaking up, he uses a storyline that is similar yet a homage to Dorothy Parker's The Lovely Leave.

The script that Almodovar creates begins with a meeting between a mother (Kiti Manver) and two doctors (Jordi Molla & Nancho Novo) that at first seems like part of the movie when really, it's a video watched on a seminar performed by three actors. Yet, its melodramatic tone would set the stage for Leo's own melodramatic downward spiral as she copes with betrayal, loss, and feeling trapped in her own success. The film is largely semi-biographical in some ways because Almodovar is making a film that's really about himself in transition. Here is a director who has been known for creating colorful, high-octane melodrama, grand humor, and moments of decadence. Yet, at the stage when he made this film, he feels tired of making these kinds of films.

Almodovar's direction is still colorful yet becomes more intimate and stagy. At the same time, he's challenging his audience. Almodovar definitely takes more risk in his direction in not just the technical work but also allow himself to open up more. While the melodrama might be overbearing for some, Almodovar is telling the audience to be patient as they watch the drama unfold. Particularly little scenes that involves Antonio's visits with his mother, the dialogue with references to classic Hollywood films, and Leo's relationship with her family and friend Betty. Though the audience probably have an idea of what's coming, Almodovar is smart enough to know they know will happen yet how he stages it through his script and momentum-building direction. Though the film isn't perfect, what Almodovar achieves through the film is a director taking the right step into mature territory that would follow through in the next series of films to come.

Cinematographer Affonso Beato creates some wonderful, color scenes for some of the film's interior settings while exterior shots of daytime and nighttime Madrid are excellent with great compositions created by Almodovar's direction. Beato's work is truly exquisite in capturing a vibrancy as well as a mood for some of the film's nighttime interior scenes to reflect the state of mind of Leo. Almodovar's longtime editor Jose Salcedo does excellent work in the use of transitions and fade-outs to convey the sense of emotion and drama that unfolds. Art directors Wolfgang Burmann and Miguel Lopez Pelegrin do great work in the look of the apartments from Leo and Betty's posh apartment looks to the more comfort, old-world look that Leo's mother lives in her Madrid apartment and the village home that she lives in.

Costume designers Max Mara, Hugo Mezcua, and Ermeneglido Zegna create some excellent work in the look of the clothes that often acts as film references or to convey a sense of emotion of where the characters are. The sound work of Bernardo Menz with recordist Antonio Illan is excellent for its location settings and the sound of flamenco steps for one of the film's theatrical moments. The music of Alberto Iglesias, another Almodovar collaborator, is great for its mix of symphonic melodrama as well as traditional, flamenco-style music for a subplot that involves Antonio's desire to create a play with his mother.

The cast is definitely superb with notable small performances from Kiti Manver, Jordi Molla, and Nancho Novo as actors in a video seminar, Gloria Munoz and Juan Jose Otegui as Leo's publishers, and Imanol Arias as Paco, Leo's estranged husband who feels trapped in his marriage as he could no longer stand to be with her. Manuela Vargas is great as Blanca, Leo's longtime yet loyal maid who is trying to deal with her son Antonio while unsure if she wants to do theater again. Joaquin Cortes is excellent as Antonio, Blanca's son who wonders why his mother is loyal to Leo as he does things that he's not proud of in order to fund his project yet a meeting he would have with Leo prove that he's a complex individual.

Almodovar regular Chus Lampreave is great as Leo's mother who is dealing with her increasing blindness as well as her cantankerous daughter Rosa whom she calls "crabface". Rossy de Palma, another Almodovar regular, is also great as Rosa, Leo's tired, insulting sister who is dealing with her mother while trying not to accept money from Leo as she some scene-stealing moments. Carmen Elias is excellent as Leo's best friend Betty who tries to help her deal with her marital issues while trying to deal with her own professional problems as she plays both psychiatrist and friend. Juan Echanove is brilliant as the charming, lively Angel, a man who doesn't have great physical features but his love for Amanda Gris' writing and classic Hollywood films manages to win over Leo. Echanove's performance is definitely a standout as he provides both a comedic charm and dramatic sensitivity as his scenes with Paredes are fun to watch.

Marisa Paredes, a frequent collaborator of Almodovar, is amazing in her role as Leo. In today's more youth-oriented world of Hollywood, there's not many roles for actresses over 40 which is why Pedro Almodovar is here in the world of cinema. For Paredes, she takes on a lead role where she gets the chance to carry a film as she brings a lot of drama, experience, and struggle to a character who is dealing with a failing marriage and ambitions that don't live up to its promises. Though her character is melodramatic and Paredes can do that, her performance keeps it from being overbearing despite the film's tone as she creates a sympathetic character who is trying to figure out the next phase in her life. It's a brilliant performance from the veteran Spanish actress.

When it was released in 1995, the film received mixed reviews from critics. Yet, many were aware that the film was Almodovar in transition. Particularly in his approach into creating character-driven drama that would later follow two years later with Carne Tremula (Live Flesh). An adaptation of a Ruth Rendell novel that showed Almodovar delving into broader, darker material that finally culminated with 1999's Todo Sobre Mi Madre (All About My Mother) that would give him huge international acclaim. Since the release of La Flor de mi Secreto, the film has been considered by Almodovar fans as one of his finest.

Though not a perfect film nor as good as some of his recent, latter-day masterpieces like Todo Sobre Mi Madre, Hable con Ella, and Volver, La Flor de mi Secreto is still an excellent film by Pedro Almodovar. Thanks to the brilliant performance of Marisa Paredes and a great supporting that includes Almodovar regulars Rossy de Palma and Chus Lampreave along with Juan Echanove. It's a film that is full of life and melodrama while showing the struggles of what a writer goes through when being compromised. While its considered as one of Almodovar's finest films, it's a film that has to be seen after his latter-day masterpieces to understand how he got into the dramatic territory that's been giving him international acclaim. In the end, La Flor de mi Secreto is an excellent, engrossing drama from Pedro Almodovar.

© thevoid99 2011

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