The Flower of My Secret

Over the holiday weekend I was pleased to find Netflix sent me an Almodóvar film from my queue. The Flower of My Secret tells the story of Leo, a highly successful romance novelist with a nom de plume that protects her from worshipping fans. Leo’s husband Paco is serving in the army in Brussels and they never get to see each other. It has turned Leo’s usually “pink” world “black”—her romance novels, which once flowed quickly and easily, have turned into books like her recent manuscript The Cold-Storage Room, about a wife who kills here husband and hides him in a neighbor’s restaurant freezer after she discovers he committed incest with their daughter.

The film begins with a simulation run by the National Transplant Organization. A woman is being told her teenaged son has been killed in a traffic accident and has no brain activity. Would she like to donate his organs to save lives?

If these sound familiar, it’s because the first aspect is the plot of Almodóvar’s most recent film Volver and the second, the basis of the film All About My Mother.

It’s in Secret that we first meet Manuela, the grieving heroine of Mother, in a prescient setting: signing away her dead son’s organs. The simulated grief in Secret becomes the real, unbearable, unlivable grief of Mother and even Marisa Pareides, who plays Leo in Secret, appears in the later film as world-weary, love-lorn actress Huma Rojo.

And the story of Volver has uneasy coincidences with Secret too. In Volver,, the film opens with heroine Raimunda cleaning off the grave of her dead mother in their remote village. In Secret, Leo’s mother begs to return to the village where the family once lived, and by the end of the film, she does, taking Leo with her. These sets are the sets of Volver, this house, this courtyard, this village. It’s the setting of Leo’s unpublished novel.

Like the other films, the color red is crucial in The Flower of My Secret. Here, it is a marker of passion, both artistic and romantic, and probably also insanity to some degree as Leo’s grief over losing her husband envelops her.

It’s why Almodóvar is a genius, these nested films butting up against each other in his oeuvre in an odd, surprising way. It gives me a new concept of body of work. His work is a single body.

Más Almodóvar, Por Favor

I saw in the most recent issue of The Threepenny Review a symposium on the films of Pedro Almodóvar. It’s been a few months since I’ve had my favorite filmmaker in my life, so I quickly devoured the essays inside—brief though they were, they were delicous.

What I loved about this symposium was that people from a small variety of backgrounds were asked to respond to Almodóvar’s films in a personal manner. I’m not sure there’s any other way to respond to his work, really. One wrote about seeing Talk to Her in Spanish with French subtitles while traveling abroad; another, about returning to Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown after twenty years of separation.

It’s hard for me to pinpoint what I love so much about his films, why they speak to me, but I can say that I see myself in his work. I mean, I see a representation of myself there. This is how I see the world: full of hyperbole and histrionics, full of marginalized people who are perhaps more authentic than the legitimate people. And there—the question/burden of authenticity, both in art and in life (for Almodóvar’s films are as much about being films as they are about approximating life).

As Agrado describes in All About My Mother (my favorite, easily): “I am very authentic” (muy auténtico), just as she explains all the ways in which her body has been surgically altered to appear female. Because authenticity is an internal definition, not external. Her physical modifications, which would seem the opposite of inauthentic from an outside perspective, serve to make her body and complete self-image more in line, more authentic, in the end.

Almodóvar, for better or worse, gave us Antonio Banderas and Penélope Cruz.

What he is, really, is an artist of appropriation. He pulls, steals, borrows, clips and cuts from all manner of traditions and art forms: other films, visual art, performance art, cabaret, architecture, melodrama…

I want to be the place where things converge, the way he is.

Volverá a Volver

I’ve been meaning to write about Volver, the latest film from one of my most favorite filmmakers, for a little over a week. I bought the DVD recently, knowing I would not be disappointed, and I wasn’t.

Volver takes for its occasion the brief snippet of the “novela negro” written by the lead character in Almodóvar’s earlier film The Flower of My Secret. Working-class Raimunda (a pneumatic Penelope Cruz) must deal with her family’s old dark secrets as she tries to cover up an entirely new one while putting food on the table for her daughter. The film is more than that: while family is the focus here, Daniel Mendelsohn rightly pointed out in his review in the New York Review of Books that this film is more about the solidarity of women than anything else.

This is familiar territory for Almodóvar, who explored this theme in earlier films like the magnificent All About My Mother and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. But here, the tone is a bit different—wistful, probing, tender. The rich emotional lives of these characters is brought to the forefront much as it was in Mother, but the noir undertones of the film paint it in textured strokes.

I have never loved Penelope Cruz as much as I did in this film. In fact, I used to hate her (in the Tom Cruise era) and had an unflattering nickname for her. But her work with Almodóvar is unparalleled. In fact, I would be hard pressed to think of one of his stars who didn’t turn in a career-making performance under his direction.

As always, Almodóvar’s other strength is in set design and framing. The way he works with eye-popping color and pattern in his mise-en-scene is really something to behold and I feel like I learn so much about filmmaking just from watching his films. In much the same way All About My Mother was a love letter to the architectural innovation of the city of Barcelona, Volver captures a drab and dull world in Technicolor, making it seem as though these hard-knock lives are maybe not as hopeless as they may first appear.

Almodóvar’s narratives resist quick and clear categorization or synopsizing. Volver begins first as a family melodrama, turns to Postman Always Rings Twice-level noir, and then lands softly somewhere in between. Every time you think you know what the spine of the story is going to be, Almodóvar turns in a new, unexpected direction that prevents him from working too deeply in trope.

His three previous films (All About My Mother, Talk to Her, Bad Education) seem to all work together—not as a trilogy or sequence, but clearly as related work. Those three films are all deeply internal, personal, wrought with emotion, exploring ideas of personal connection. Volver samples from each of them, acting as a true “return” not only his earlier film upon which this is partially based, but on his body of work as a whole. Carmen Maura and Penelope Cruz return from previous films in these new roles and it’s gratifying to watch them embody wholly new characters and remain wholly believable.

If you don’t know Almodóvar’s work, you must immediately stand up, run to your nearest video store, and rent some. My recommendations, in order:

All About My Mother
Volver
Bad Education
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
Talk to Her
Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!