THE FLOWER OF MY SECRET (Spain, 1995) (La Flor de mi Secreto) *** 1/2
Melodrama is not always an easy term to define, or to distinguish from plain drama, tragicomedy or TV soapers. Beyond tricky and shifting parameters and classifications, melodrama is essentially like pornography: you can't apply rules to it, but you know it when you see it.
In some important respects, FLOWER does not follow the conventions of melodrama. Emotions are exaggerated, but not all that much, given the temperament of Latins; the characters are not stereotyped; there are no villains to be punished and no heroes who triumph. And while there are several players in the film, it is essentially a one-woman show.
The woman (Maria Paredes, who played the mother in HIGH HEELS and is perfect in her role here) is called Leo, short for Leocadia. (An unusual name. In case theatre buffs wonder, it is unconnected to the play LEOCADIA by Jean Anouilh). She is fortyish, attractive, and emotionally in a bad way. No, she is not crazy, but she misses her husband Paco, a high-ranking Army officer away at NATO Headquarters in Brussels. And she worries about her marriage-on-the-rocks.
It would be unfair to give away the plot and twists of the movie. Leo's predicament is built up gradually and brilliantly, through the people she comes in contact with and via events that may at first seem to be odd, mysterious or disconnected but in reality make a solid fabric for the story. There are many threads in FLOWER but they come together in plausible ways. There are several loose ends, but even when they seem absurd, they turn out to make make very good sense -- because they are the loose ends of life, not those of a film's structure.
Among them is the secret of Amanda Gris, a mysterious, best-selling authoress of romantic potboilers; Leo's serious literary ambitions; her meeting with Angel, the paunchy, simpatico cultural pages editor of "El Pais" (a real newspaper) who falls for her; the Leo-Angel meeting of minds in their love of feminist literature (almost all of it Anglo); their divergences on writer Amanda Gris; Leo's maid Blanca, a retired flamenco dancer who, at some point appears in a splendid, post-modern flamenco performance with her son Antonio; Antonio who finances the show in unorthodox ways that involve Leo; Leo's sister Rosa with whom their aged mother lives in perpetual turmoil.
(Rosa is played by the hatchet-faced actress who is a staple in Almodovar movies; the mother, by a versatile veteran actress of comedy who is excellent here and goes from tantrums to natural advice that helps Leo's sanity. Almodovar drew on his own mother for that part).
There is also Leo's best female friend, a psychologist, and husband Paco, back on a short leave on his way to Bosnia. Surprises abound, not in set-piece style but in realistic, albeit highly emotional ways. Double-edged, funny as well as bittersweet sequences, such as Leo and too-tight boots or the opening scenes that deal with announcing the death of a son, then make a pitch for organ donation --yet fool you. (Don't ask).
Almodovar does not cheat, but nor does he take us by the hand to guide us in the maze he has created. He ought to make a thriller some day, with his skills in suspense and surprise. Almodovar is openly gay, but in this film, if there are any hints of same-sex relations, they must be well hidden. On the other hand, the writer-director understands women remarkably well and with immense empathy and sympathy. He also understands the construction of films. The scenes play through to the end, yet retain their ability to surprise us with their mix of the contemporary Spanish zeitgeist, literary matters and personal problems.
The production is first-rate, with top photography that runs from documentary-like objectivity to great symbolic shots, like those of the return of Paco seen through a number of small mirrors on the wall or those of the marital bed. Almodovar's usual garish-on-purpose colors have been much toned down, even made into pastels at times, in keeping with the mood.
There is a lot of drinking in the film, and even more conversation, so much of it that one needs a quick eye to catch the many elusive subtitles -- a small liability for non-Spanish speakers. I am all for subtitles, and I can get riled at the laziness of viewers who say "I can't see the movie for having to read it." In FLOWER, however, this is sometimes justified, but it should not discourage one from seeing the film. It is not as outrageous or surreal as many other Almodovar pictures, not as mordant and provocative, so that you have to gear down to a warmer and more accessible yet rich psychological level. Even so, there are no dull moments or any bits you wish had been cut out.