Pedro Almodovar casts aside his predilection for stylized high comedy and moves into full-blooded melodrama in “The Flower of My Secret.” Far from abandoning his trademark humor, however, the writer-director skillfully enlists it in the service of an emotional story, charting the heroine’s journey from loss and torment to rediscovered strength and hope. Propelled by stellar performances and a script that resonates with intelligence, subtlety and surprises, this is by far Almodovar’s best film in years, and its international commercial orbit should expand accordingly.
On the surface, the new film’s closest kin in the director’s canon is arguably “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” since both stories center on women navigating a collision course to emotional recovery after reluctantly accepting the end of love. The similarity begins and ends there, however. While the comedy in “Flower” is still very much a front-line factor, the film’s main game is tinkering around with the conventions of melodrama.
The lovelorn femme is Leo (Marisa Paredes), whose marriage to NATO official Paco (Imanol Arias) is fast skidding to a halt. A writer of bestselling romance novels under the nom de plume Amanda Gris, Leo’s dismal personal life renders her incapable of delivering the rosy pulp required by her contract. Instead, she becomes progressively more fond of the bottle, and pens a dark tale of death , deemed unpublishable. In an amusing dig at one of Almodovar’s compatriot directors, the novel is stolen from Leo’s trash and sold, becoming the basis for a Bigas Luna feature.
Given much more challenging material here than in “High Heels,” the remarkable Paredes breathes almost heroic dimensions into the battered but dignified figure who plummets and then slowly scrambles to her feet again. A powerful dramatic engine to the film, she is surrounded by the director’s customary platoon of delightful secondary characters, played with gusto.
Among them is Angel (Juan Echanove), editor of the cultural supplement of national daily EI Pais. Quietly enamored of Leo, and unaware of her secret identity, he commissions her to write a scathing condemnation of the fiction of Amanda Gris. Also intriguing is Leo’s fiercely loyal housekeeper, retired flamenco star Blanca (Manuela Vargas), and her sleek dancer son Antonio (Joaquin Cortes).
Hilarious interludes are provided by Leo’s sister Rosa (Rossy De Palma) and their quarrelsome, halfblind mother (Chus Lampreave), reluctantly relocated to Madrid from her native country village and reportedly a character inspired by Almodovar’s mother. Even here, however, the director allows his comedic instincts free rein only up to a point, unexpectedly proposing a return to the village and to simple values as the recuperative key that gives Leo hope again.
This part of the story, filmed in the region of La Mancha, Almodovar’s childhood home, assumes more personal shadings in its treatment of pain, solitude and the need for love, and especially in its advocating of a return to one’s roots for stability. In her mother’s eyes, Leo is “like a cow without a cowbell.” The definition is both funny and poignant in the context of the film and, in a sense, expresses the essence of most of Almodovar’s unhinged women.
The film’s look is much more anchored in realism than the director’s customary fare. The eyepopping colors are kept to a minimum. Instead, a more soulful backdrop is created of the Madrid locations. At times, the melodramatic visual tricks are worthy of masters like Douglas Sirk, with faces constantly shot in mirrors or through grates or elaborate screens.
Uproarious laughs are largely confined to two characters, but the material takes considerably more risks than the director’s work of late, and consequently yields rewards that are altogether richer and more satisfying. In its lush mix of tragedy, comedy and cruel paradox, fed by doses of realism, rural romanticism and an intrinsically Spanish flavor, the film plays like a ravishing old-Hollywood sentimental drama drunk on sangria and dancing to a flamenco beat.