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…
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