Bad Boy Makes Good

The Flower of My Secret

Lagoon Cinema, starts Friday

PEDRO ALMÓDOVAR WAS once a boy so bad he thought nothing of making rape funny, or of using camp fashion as both content and form. He had both a rich imagination and a high disregard for sincerity. It seemed as if both his shallowness and style were unbreakable.

But it's tough to stay a bad boy 24-7; as the days grind on, the guard eventually comes down and the real world has to be acknowledged. So it's not entirely surprising to find this naughty boy handing us a comedy that really cares about its characters. The Flower of My Secret--the title seems lifted from any randomly chosen melodrama or bodice-ripping paperback--is, believe it or not, sympathetic to the crises of a middle-aged Madrilena, and generates concern along with its abundant laughs. Since time can wound any heel, maybe we should see Almódovar as an aging boy who's letting other, younger imps take up the banner of outrage.

Fans of his prior wickedness (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, High Heels, What Have I Done to Deserve This?, etc.) shouldn't worry that he's gone soft; this movie begins, after all, with a counseling session in which two young doctors grovel with a mother whose son has become brain-dead, and therefore a ripe supplier of organs to harvest. The skit itself turns out to have little to do with the movie that follows, and takes a quick twist of its own, but it's a neat indication that split-second mood adjustment (from despair to hope; from mockery to mercy) is part of the game at hand.

The main path of this happily meandering story follows the sorrows of Leo (Marisa Paredes), who is introduced as merely suffering but who turns out to be a successful writer and deep thinker who makes money on something she's ashamed of (romance novels, under a pseudonym), and who pines for her absent and uncaring husband. Appropriately, her story is shot like a soap--lots of closeup camera work--and the plot involves numerous switchbacks, coincidences, revelations, and extraneous details.

The characters around her are simultaneously credible and ludicrous, both ordinary and exaggerated. Leo's husband is a high-ranking Army hunk who works on the Bosnia problem but can't solve the "war" in his own home; her editors are literate nit-pickers who recognize great writing but refuse to publish it; her loyal cook is also a famed flamenco dancer who reluctantly joins a plot to steal a discarded manuscript. These people with their quirks make a perfect backdrop for high camp. And the style is ready to assist: High-contrast colors often alternate (mustard vs. royal blue, moss green vs. rust), while with every fourth line the dialogue seems to provide a robust and promising new plot surprise. There's even a small dose of profanity, as when the distraught, barely surviving Leo emerges from her utter despair to witness first a screaming contest on a bar's TV set, and then a throng of protesting medical students chanting about how they're being fucked in all directions.

Clever lapses like these aside, the primary shock here is that Almódovar and his cast aren't entirely joking, or skimming the surface. Paredes's Leo seems ridiculous as she begs a beggar to help pull off the tight boots she wears in memory of her missing husband, yet as she stands up to the fools around her, she shows genuine dignity. And while her mother and sister bicker juicily like supporting players on Seinfeld, when Leo finally does retreat with Mamacita to the old country village, suddenly we're in a provincial haven where light gossip amid traditional lace-making seems like the best therapy ever invented.

It's weird to be praising a former rebel for such a viewer-friendly project; The Flower of My Secret percolates along so happily and with such disregard for showy outrage that I kept wondering if something was wrong with it. When it ended kind of abruptly, with Leo either on the verge of something big or simply stopping by to say hello, I realized that Pedro Almódovar had actually added two new tools to his workshop: ambiguity and complexity. If the job of a bad boy is to shock, then maybe the fate of a reformed bad boy is to tease, to dance, to provide the joys of orchestrated imbalance. Pedro's got a brand-new bag.

 
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