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The passion of Pedro
The Flower of My Secret is a new kind of movie from Pedro Almodovar - somber, realistic, and mature. Yet in its way, it's as humorous and stylized as anyting the clever Spanish director has done. Here he talks about why it's so personal to him.
Pedro Almodovar was a country boy who came to town alone at age sixteen. He hightailed it out of dour, drab, provincial La Mancha for the city - site of sin and danger and color. Its name was Madrid, but it might as well have been New York or Rome or Babylon. In the waning Franco days and the early years of liberation in the mid-'70s, he wrote for underground magazines, formed a punk group, and made guerrilla movies with titles like Sex Comes, Sex Goes (1977) and Fuck Me, Fuck Me, Fuck Me, Tim (1978).
He grew into a wonderful filmmaker, a poet of sex, style, and survival. After hot early features like Law of Desire (1987) about transgressive lusts, he made the great farce Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), in which he treated a manic Madrid just as Hollywood treated New York in its '30s screwball comedies: as a playground for wit - above all, women's wit. Players like Carmen Maura. Rossy de Palma, and Antonio Banderas toyed brilliantly with their own sexiness in Almodovar's films.
Darker, more sour tones crept into subsequent films like Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990), High Heels (1991), and Kika (1993), suggesting Almodovar had become mired in repetition. His new film, The Flower of My Secret, however, is a sensational, exciting return to form - or rather, a deepening and enriching of his old form. The star, for one thing, is Marisa Paredes, who emerges as Almodovar's most delightfully ironic player (think of a Spanish Irene Dunne) since his split with Maura. The masterful high comedy of urban life is back, but blended with sad notes of resignation and compromise, and even with a certain controlled nostalgia for the country. It's a wise, mature work, full of questions about home and family, and fuller than ever of Almodovar's precise and zany human colors.
DONALD LYONS: The Flower of My Secret has a very different tone from the other movies you've made in the last couple of years.
PEDRO ALMODOVAR: Yes. All my movies are difficult to classify because they are very eclectic in mixing genres. The Flower of My Secret is definitely more based in true emotions. I also wanted to make something more realistic, but not naturalistic or simple.
DL: It seems to me that one of the things you've done brilliantly throughout your film career is to use decor as a way of revealing character, particularly in relation to women. You use everyday objects, clothes, the same way.
PA: I think decor says a lot about someone's social position, their taste, their sensibility, their work - and also about the aesthetic way I have chosen to tell their story. With this film, I wanted the basis of the story to be elements that were quotidian, ordinary, and simple. For example, there is the simple scene where Leo [Marisa Paredes] is wearing the boots that her husband has given her because she feels nostalgic for him.
DL: In fact, she can't take the boots off and even goes up to a junkie in the street to ask him to pull them off for her. Finally, she ends up at her psychiatrist.
PA: I am glad that I imagined that scene, because it was the best and simplest way to explain that she is completely alone. That, for me, was the key to the movie. I think Leo's drama comes from the fact that she lives for many months with uncertainty over whether or not her husband will leave her. At the moment she finally understands he is going to leave her, she's in a situation where she can evolve and move on. But the uncertainty is the most dangerous and dramatic part.
DL: All the women in your films are strong, and they're at their strongest when they have to face up to difficulties.
PA: Yes, women are stronger than us. They face more directly the problems that confront them, and for that reason they are much more spectacular to talk about. I don't know why I am more interested in women, because I don't go to any psychiatrists, and I don't want to know why. I was brought up in La Mancha, which is one of the more macho regions in Spain. Men are like gods in their homes. I remember my mother washing my father's feet. It looked like slavery, but it's pretty normal. In fact, it was the women in our house who were in the saddle. If men are the gods, women are not only the presidents but all the ministers of the government.
DL: Do you think you are fair to male characters in your films?
PA: I think I'm fair to them in general. In The Flower of My Secret, Paco [Imanol Arias], Leo's husband, is not a bad man, but he is awkward and clumsy. As a professional strategist, he's a specialist in wars, but he doesn't know how to manage his own personal war, the one that is situated in his home, where the only victim is his wife. I had the idea - another of which I am very proud - to hang a mirror made up of pieces of mirrors in their hallway, so that when you see Leo and Paco kissing, for the first time, you see a fragmented kiss. You never see their lips together. Right from the start, you know this is a fragmented couple.
DL: Leo is a pseudonymous romance novelist who wants to be a serious novelist. Her editor is seemingly agreeable, yet he really only wants her to write these cheap romances.
PA: Yeah, this is a funny commentary on what people read. I don't make judgments about what's good or bad or what's real and isn't in culture. In Spain, we call these romance novels "pink novels" and we call thrillers "black novels." Here, though, we have a writer who writes pink novels, but her life is very black. At the end, I suppose she's going to start writing black novels, but her life is more soft, more pastel. We can't say "pink," because pink is completely unreal. Pink is perfect for a comedy like Funny Face , which I adore, but pink is not for living.
DL: You paraphrase one of my favorite Humphrey Bogart lines from Casablanca  in The Flower of My Secret, when Angel [Juan Echanove] - the Journalist who befriends Leo - says to her, "I'll never forget that day - the day the Germans occupied Paris. The Germans wore gray and you wore blue."
PA: Bogart sounded like a drag queen talking about outfits! I used this line to demonstrate how important colors are in movies: It's not a caprice. When I choose a color, it's often intuitively, but always with a cinematic sense. The colors of the first movies I saw were very bright, very unreal. I don't want to imitate life in movies; I want to represent it. And in that representation, you use the colors you feel, and sometimes they are fake colors. But always it's to show one emotion.
DL: What's the significance of Angel?
PA: Leo's friendship with him signifies that she has matured in her relationships. She doesn't really need to jump into the arms of the first young man who crosses her path. Instead, he is so in love with her that he more or less becomes her; he starts writing novels with her pseudonym and he ends up being her best girlfriend. [laughs] He's definitely one of the few nice male characters I've written.
DL: Leo's elderly mother [Chus Lampreave] is wonderful: violent, a little bit senile, kind to Leo - the daughter who does nothing for her - but mean to the daughter who does everything [Rossy de Palma]. Anyone who's had an aging mother can recognize her in this character.
PA: Good, because she's based on my own mother and I was afraid that it was too personal. Even though I love my mother, I didn't want to make an idealized portrait of her. I'm fascinated more by her defects - they are funnier than her other qualities.
DL: The mother in the movie insists on leaving Madrid, which is overrun by skinheads, and going back to her old village in the country. Was that filmed in La Mancha?
PA: Yes. It was shot in Almagro, twenty kilometers from my own village [Calzada de Calatrava]. The daughter, Leo, goes out onto the same street where she went out all of her childhood - the same white walls, the same doors - and, having been completely lost, she finds her bearing in the world again. This doesn't mean the country's going to solve her problems, but it nourishes her again, as if her blood were being replenished, so that she can go back to Madrid to face all her troubles with renewed strength.
DL: It was nice to see a tribute to George Cukor's last film, Rich and Famous , at the end of The Flower of My Secret.
PA: Cukor is one of my favorite directors. He was a master at directing women.
DL: Well, you have much in common with him.