I've never enjoyed chick flicks.
Films like Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason strike me as cinematic equivalents to crack pipe hits for girls. They are down and dirty, pass the goods, quick fixes. Most chick flicks aren't even romantic, unless your idea of romance is watching two people kiss, fight, and babble like infants. They hardly qualify as comedies, either; most are middling, sentimental and absurd. (Before the hate mail pours in, "guy" flicks are just as mindless: monotonous action, deus ex machina, T&A, and unremitting explosions. Neither is the victor in a contest for taste.) Good comedic romances, true romantic comedies, are very hard to come by. The Flower of My Secret is one of those rare romantic comedies that is both very romantic and quite funny.
The Flower of My Secret is Pedro Almodóvar's 1995 international hit newly released to DVD in the states. The plot is classic Almodóvar: Leo Macias (Marisa Paredes) is a self-absorbed writer who writes romantic novels under a pseudonym. Her marriage to Paco (Imanol Arias) is quickly crumbling and her elderly mother is desperate for attention. Leo, always on the verge of a nervous breakdown, is hired by Angel (Juan Echanove) to write a column disparaging the infamous, and virtually unknown, romance novelist Amanda Gris. As fate would have it, Leo is Amanda Gris.
While the film's plot is familiar, the execution is not. Almodóvar knows better than to let contrivances drive the picture and he quickly takes the ball, throws it to the characters and lets them run with it. And they are simply magnificent. Leo is as well drawn a character as you're likely to see in a romantic comedy: she is anxious, funny, warm and hypocritical. Marisa Paredes, practically an institution in Spain, inhabits the soul of Leo. She's that good. (And looks for all the world like an older Gwyneth Paltrow.)
It seems that "bad boy" filmmakers have only two options once they've made it big, they can either go on to make commercial films with little or no edge or they can drop out of sight altogether. A few have managed to both tame their wild streaks and still remain relevant, and Almodóvar ranks highest among them. His early movies Matador and Dark Habits were raw, experimental pictures that really pushed the envelope. After the tremendous success of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, many attuned critics assumed Almodóvar would settle down into a quasi-commercial predictability. He clearly did not. The Flower of My Secret, while more subdued than, say, Matador, is still just as edgy and quirky as anything Almodóvar's done. It's just that he's matured into his role as a filmmaker; he's kept the funk while toning down the feedback. That's called aging gracefully, folks.
Romantic comedies, at the least the ones we're force-fed by Hollywood tend to be highly predictable affairs. There's a simple template and it's rigidly followed. Almodóvar, while making romantic comedies, doesn't follow the rules. The best parts of The Flower of My Secret are the ones you don't expect. You expect the drama, the anxious bickering, the pratfalls and the one-liners but you don't expect a gradual transformation from bumbling and cute to solemn and romantic. That's an extremely hard shift to make and Almodóvar has the transition down perfect. As we watch Leo and Paco fight, we are drawn into their lives, and no amount of chic style or blasé asides can remove us from the emotional connection. And Almodóvar knows that, he's crafted it that way. By the end of the film, when Paco has stormed off and Leo is left staring into Angel's goofy eyes, we know what she's feeling. We're right there with her. Bridget Jones's cross-eyed gape could never do that.
The Flower of My Secret is melodramatic, cheeky, and impeccably colored and coifed. But it is also solemn and poignant. It is a film that only a master filmmaker, like Almodóvar, can deliver - an archetypal romantic comedy that reshapes the mold.
Aka La Flor de mi secreto.