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Oeuvre is an in-depth examination of the entire body of work of an important director.

The Flower of My Secret has to have been made in reaction (or to curb the audience’s reaction) to Kika, right? It can’t be arbitrary that Almodóvar followed up a sensationalist and potentially misogynistic film (funny rape scene = people get mad) with a relatively quiet melodrama about a frustrated romance writer with her own personal relationship problems. Some might call it “maturity,” but I think it’s closer to “backpedaling.” Interesting backpedaling, but backpedaling nonetheless.

Movies about writers are often passé, but most of them are about idealized forms of the writer as the filmmaker attempts to make their problems cinematic when most of their lives are about sitting in front of keyboards (but typewriters on screen — they’re more cinematic). Adaptation may have been the culmination of this not-even-a-genre, but The Flower of My Secret says no. After all, it’s been said 90% of writing is spent not writing. Granted, Almodóvar’s film precedes Kaufman and Jonze’s film by a good seven years, but it does suggest that there are ways to spin stories about writers that aren’t self-indulgent. Maybe budding screenwriters should watch The Flower of my Secret instead.

Almodóvar opens on two parallel dilemmas. First, we have student doctors learning how to persuade grieving families to donate the deceased’s organs by staging mock meetings as a panel looks on via video feed. Then we cut to our protagonist, the writer Leo Macías (Marisa Paredes), trying to wrest her distant husband Paco’s (Imanol Arias) ill-fitting boots from her feet. Here’s your themes, grieving and letting go of that which is of no use to you anymore. What good is a husband who volunteers to go to Bosnia to avoid you? What are you going to do with your brain-dead son’s kidneys?

Soon we learn that Leo leads a double-life. As intellectual Leo Macias, she writes essays on literature for El País newspaper. As veteran novelist Amanda Gris, she writes trashy romance novels. Suddenly, Leo finds herself writing about her alter-ego while her Gris identity struggles to write about sentimental romance thanks to her strained relationship with Paco, a soldier stationed in Belgium. Thus, Leo translates her pain into her work now, and her publisher does not approve. When asked why, she says “I guess I’m evolving […] Maybe because I’m alive.”

Curious that Almodóvar chooses a romance writer as his tortured artist for Flower. It’s a romanticized view of a genre perceived to lack artistry and dominated by formula. This is especially true when Leo tries to move into darker territory and her ridiculous publishing contract demands a happy ending, stipulating such elements as tastefully suggested sexuality, “cosmopolitan settings,” as well as “winter sports” and “yuppies.” Pained by her personal life, protocol demands that she can’t break formula as much as her subconscious demands the release. Meanwhile, the student doctors work from formula to understand human behavior as it relates to their clinical concerns, knowing what emotions lead to what behavior in attempting to coerce organ donation, but here emotion is what keeps protocol from going smoothly.

The Flower of My Secret shows a model of writing about writers where the subject is intrinsic to the story. Leo writes formulaic but optimistically romantic literature while her life is the opposite. Her identities, one of which is secret to everyone but her best friend and confident, conflict. Leo-as-writer is a character with problems and themes, not a wish-fulfillment fiction suit for the writer.

Almodóvar and cinematographer Affonso Beato separate Paco and Leo as much as possible. She talks to him on the phone and we observe Leo through a grated partition. When the camera pans down to Paco’s boots on Leo’s feet at the beginning, it is through the glass of her desk, as if to slyly admit that the metaphor of the boots is obvious. When Paco finally appears in the doorway, they kiss and the cuts to a view of them through a cluster of framed mirrors on the wall that cut up the image. Their love is fractured. There’s always something in the way. She’s in a sexy red dress, he’s in his olive military uniform. He’s in the shower, and they can only see one another through the translucent shower curtain. She tries to pleasure him, but he’s covered himself with a towel. The paella’s gone cold.

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Almodóvar stages the drama like a soap opera — the television equivalent of Leo’s writing. Paco reveals that he’s leaving for Bosnia and Leo, heartbroken turns and approaches the camera. Paco follows and embraces. Almodóvar’s interest in melodrama works well with the subject matter of the frustrated romance writer, especially one that even resorts to absurdly soap operatic antics in her “dark” writing. But this is Almodóvar we’re talking about, so there’s a streak of comedy here. Leo’s secret “I love you” codeword with Paco is the word “rock” (“roca”) from an ad for Roca Toilets, so when she sees the slogan “Te quiero a ti, Roca” on a storefront, she becomes hysterical. This is both silly and painfully true: the stupidest things can become so cosmically important that it brings us to tears in the streets.

Even after the heartbreak and suicide attempts, there’s more melodrama to be had, as Leo has bought into the fiction she’s been peddling. After lying in wait for her hysterics, her military husband goes tits-up and she turns to Angel (Juan Echanove), her portly but caring editor at the newspaper. When Leo climatically announces that she’s not going to move into Angel’s arms and quit drinking so she can finally become an independent woman and try to learn to live without Paco, she need not actually prove it over time — that’s psychologically satisfying, but not romantically satisfying. She just needs a big emotional speech and a heart-to-heart with another character to tie up some loose ends in the plot and then she can pay Angel a romantic visit. It’s tidy, but it’s also how melodrama works.

The Flower of My Secret shows the director relying less on his usual indulgences, practicing restraint as he lets the main plot become the driving force with minimal digression. It signals the beginning of a new — some would say “mature” — phase for Almodóvar, who would go on to move into increasingly unfamiliar territory with thrillers, serious dramas and, um, Penélope Cruz.

by Danny Djeljosevic

Other Almodóvar Oeuvre Features

Kika

High Heels

Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!

Law of Desire

Matador

What Have I Done to Deserve This?

Dark Habits

Labyrinth of Passion

Pepi, Luci, Bom
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