In the 1995 Almodóvar film The Flower of My Secret—a work that stands at the chronological midpoint between the director’s earliest movies, with their DayGlo emotions and Benzedrine-driven plots, and the technically smoother and emotionally subtler films of the past few years—a successful middle-aged writer called Leocadia (Leo) Macìas is caught, as Almodóvar’s characters so often are, between the exhausting emotional demands imposed by a complicated life and the equally exhausting demands imposed by what you might as well call Art. Leo is an author of a series of very popular novelas rosa, romance novels (literally, “pink novels”), but her life of late has been so tortured—her handsome army officer husband is leaving her, very likely for another woman; her impossible mother is driving her and her put-upon sister nuts—that, as she tells her bemused editor, whatever she writes comes out not pink, but black.
This wry pun is meant by Leo to explain the manuscript she’s just submitted, to which the editor, Alicia, has reacted not at all well. As Alicia points out to a weary Leo, the new novel, a violent tale of murder and incest whose female protagonist “works emptying shit out of hospital bedpans, who’s got a junkie mother-in-law and faggot son who’s into black men,” not only is appallingly inappropriate to the publishing house’s “True Love” series, but violates the terms of Leo’s contract, which stipulates “an absence of social conscience…. And, of course, happy endings.” The plot of the new novel smacks less of Barbara Cartland than of Patricia Highsmith; as a sputtering Alicia puts it, it’s about
a mother who discovers her daughter has killed her father, who had tried to rape her. And so that no one finds out, she hides the body in the cold storage room of a neighbor’s restaurant…!
When Leo, defending the artistry of The Cold Storage Room, gently protests that “reality is like that,” Alicia launches into an outburst about “reality”:
Reality! We all have enough reality in our homes! Reality is for newspapers and TV. Look at the result! With so much reality, the country’s ready to explode. Reality should be banned!
But it’s clear that to Leo, the gritty reality of her lower-class characters is far worthier of artistic representation than the rose-hued, gossamer fantasy world of her earlier work. When Alicia glumly asks why Leo’s writing has changed, Leo shrugs. “I guess I’m evolving,” she says.
Pedro Almodóvar is a director who, over the course of a career that now spans a quarter-century, has famously loaded his films with references to mass entertainment, its producers and consumers; his characters tend to be directors, talk show hosts, novelists, toreros (and, in Talk to Her, a torera), actresses, journalists, publishers, dancers, fans—people who are frequently shown in the act of watching dances, plays, television shows, movies, bullfights, concerts. For this reason, exchanges in his films about the nature and merits of popular genres and their ability to represent reality are not to be taken casually. And indeed, it’s hard not to think of the argument between Alicia and Leo as one that’s about Almodóvar himself—about his own evolution as an artist, a progress in which The Flower of My Secret seemed, as critics at the time and Almodóvar himself have commented, to mark a watershed moment.
Before then, when you talked about “an Almodóvar film,” it was pretty clear what you were talking about: an exaggerated aesthetic imbued with the lurid neon glare you associated more with certain genres of entertainment—radio and TV soap operas, film noir, pop lyrics—than with anything recognizably “real.” There was the flashily self-conscious penchant for hyperbolic (and sometimes, you couldn’t help feeling, ad hoc) plotting: murder, suicide, and hostage-taking were favorite mechanisms to keep the action going (in the 1987 gay stalker melodrama Law of Desire, you get all three), and—as with soap operas—hospitals and police stations were favorite settings. There was the hysterical pacing, which was only occasionally intentionally amusing (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, the director’s 1988 breakout hit, was self-consciously constructed as a filmed stage farce). And above all there were the demimondaine characters—drag queens, transsexuals, prostitutes, junkies—who were handy, vivid symbols of the transgressive themes the then-young Almodóvar, during the heady years of the post-Franco cultural explosion, was clearly eager to explore—and to flaunt.
Such style and such material ideally suited the over-the-top passions that have always been this director’s subject, passions that, like those in soaps, were never less than excessive—and, too often, excessively symbolic. (In Matador, the male and female leads are a former matador and his icily beautiful lover, both of them serial murderers who can achieve orgasm only in the act of killing.) The very titles of the early work have a hysterical or camp edge: What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984), Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990), High Heels (1991), and, most famously, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. It comes as no surprise that the director’s earliest champions in this country were to be found among urban gay men, who were also enjoying, during the mid- and late 1980s, a newfound sense of political power and social visibility—and, of course, were feeling no little anxiety as well. Because a kind of hyperactive ebullience mixed with an edge of hysteria was the hallmark of Almodóvar’s early style, too, the appearance, back then, of a new Almodóvar film felt to many of us obscurely like a confirmation. This perfect concentricity of the films’ style and their historical moment no doubt explains why those early films, celebrated as being so gratifyingly “fabulous” at the time, feel today a bit overwrought—a bit dated.
When it came out, The Flower of My Secret—a film about an artist’s need to outgrow an earlier, insufficiently serious aesthetic—was felt, with no little relief by Almodóvar’s admirers, to signal a welcome renewal of creative energies after a number of films (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, High Heels, Kika) in which the deliciously outré boldness or the archly knowing camp fun of earlier work like The Law of Desire or Women on the Verge had hardened into shtick. Leo, to be sure, is a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown—her attachment to her wayward husband has a familiarly hysterical edge to it—but what’s interesting in this film is the way in which that mad passion fails to lead to the kind of emotional and narrative carnage with which the director had earlier liked to conclude his films.
Law of Desire, for instance, is also about an obsessed, rejected lover (an ostensibly bisexual young man, played by Antonio Banderas, who stalks and eventually seduces a famous film director and then kills the film director’s boyfriend); but whereas the earlier film’s melodramatic ending had the stalker shooting himself in his lover’s arms—after a police siege and a hostage crisis, no less—The Flower of My Secret rejects luridly dramatic death scenes in favor of something subtler and truer. Leo’s impulsive suicide attempt is foiled when, having swallowed a bottle of pills, the semiconscious woman hears her crazy mother’s voice on the answering machine—at which point she races into the bathroom, forces herself to throw up, and gets on with the painful, messy business of living. The theme of eschewing melodrama for the mundane realities of everyday life is implicit in the film’s trick opening, in which we see a distraught woman, whose husband or boyfriend, we are given to understand, is brain-dead, being gently pressured by two doctors to sign a donor consent form: the camera pulls back to reveal that the woman is merely an actress participating in a training exercise for physicians at a transplant clinic run by Leo’s best friend.
The self-conscious turning way from hyperbole that seems to be a consistent theme in The Flower of My Secret—the transplant clinic feint, the rejection of Law of Desire‘s dénouement in suicidal violence, the shift in emotional interest from an erotic, solipsistic obsession with the lover to the dutiful relationship with a mother—looks forward to a larger change that’s been in evidence over the past decadeor so. Among other things, since 1995 the writer-director has seemed to realize that invocations of and allusions to pop culture can be more than idle, postmodern games or advertisements for one’s own cleverness. All About My Mother (1999), about a woman seeking emotional meaning (not least, in mothering other people’s children) after her adored teenaged son is killed in a car accident, is beautifully organized around a series of echoes of All About Eve, with its theme of stolen identities, and of A Streetcar Named Desire, with its overriding preoccupation with fragile female psyches. Talk to Her (2002), which begins and ends with characters watching performances of Pina Bausch works, contains a brilliantly original set piece in which we get to see scenes from a bizarre 1920s silent film—Almodóvar’s invention, amusingly evocative of that era and genre—whose plot comments suggestively on his characters and their motives. (An obsessive, sexually repressed male nurse describes the film—in which a man who’s been shrunk to the size of a human finger as the result of a botched experiment enters the vagina of his sleeping mistress—as he himself finally enters the body of a comatose patient with whom he’s been obsessed for some time.)
Since then, too, there’s been an emphasis in the films on intense feelings that somehow do not lead to seduction, murder, and suicide. (The will to survive, the desire to nurture, and the need to commemorate, for instance.) If the Oscar-winning Talk to Her, like Matador sixteen years earlier, is about bullfighters and gorings, the tone of the movie, the passions that animate it—that of a journalist for the torera, and of the great torero who is his rival for her affections—are restrained, almost somber. It’s as if Almodóvar were daring himself to make a film about that aesthetically and symbolically loaded cultural institution without going over the top, as he did so gleefully in the earlier movie (which opens with a scene of the sadistic retired bullfighter masturbating to slasher films in which women are dismembered, beheaded, hanged). Indeed one of the sly surprises of the later movie is that the famous torero turns out to be rather sweet and nice, and touchingly attentive to his insensate lover—talking to her constantly—as the skeptical journalist, ostensibly the less macho character, does not.
The newfound emotional subtlety and technical restraint that you get in these films seems connected to a deeper appreciation of women than was previously evident—women not as camp harpies or hysterics or vamps (which is to say women as drag icons), but as something closer to the women of real life. This is so even in Talk to Her, where the women are more the objects than the subjects of deep emotions; it’s as if his two principal male characters’ fraught attention to the comatose women they adore has elicited from Almodóvar some deeper feelings of his own. It is surely no coincidence that the most disappointing film of the director’s recent period, the overwrought and overrated Bad Education—with its frenetically convoluted temporal layerings, its frantic Highsmithesque plot about a handsome and amoral young man whose masquerade as his own dead brother leads him to seduce both the priest who had once abused the brother and the gay film director who’d had a crush on the brother in school years before—has almost no female characters at all.